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Human rights in the digital age

Although human rights in the digital context had been on the periphery of geo-political concerns for at least a decade by the time they broke, Edward Snowden's infamous revelations about the extent of NSA spying brought them into sharp focus, if not into the very epicentre of mainstream political debate. 

Whilst balancing citizens' rights to privacy and free expression with security seem quite timeless and fundamental concerns, in the digital context does it not represent the equivalent of a 'first-world' human rights problem, given that the majority of the global population still doesn't even have access to the internet?  Perhaps not.

Although the internet throws up unique challenges as well as unique solutions to human rights concerns, the central issues remain the same: balancing public and private power; upholding individual liberties without encroaching on the wider community; vast and seemingly ever-increasing economic disparity. In other words, the inequality that excludes more than half the planet's population from the digital space is intrinsically linked to the power struggles that occur within that space.

Placing a false dichotomy between digital and non-digital rights then is ultimately fruitless, and the various stakeholders such as governments, NGOs, international bodies and of course global citizens should take a holistic approach to human rights going forward. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the pace of technological advance has outstripped that of our political processes, and human rights as a concept will have to adapt quickly to keep up.

Internet access: a fundamental human right?

When you consider that nearly one in five people still don't have access to electricity, more than one in ten are under-nourished and some 750 million don't even have access to clean water, arguing for internet access as a fundamental human right, on the face of it seems like a massive case trying to run before you can walk. Few would argue that internet access is anywhere near as high a priority as any of these. But if we are serious about putting in place the infrastructure, education and economic opportunities which will help meet these basic needs it's pretty clear that in the 21st century, internet access is central to each.

The so-called digital revolution has precipitated a tectonic shift from a global economy geared around industry to one geared around information, to the extent that the current epoch is often characterised as the 'information age'. Given that the internet is the primary means to transmit, share and foster new information, it's pretty clear how exclusion from this resource puts those without it at a major disadvantage.  These economic, educational and cultural benefits are of course intrinsically linked to the realisation of certain human rights, but the internet also impacts directly on certain human rights which predate the information age.

For instance, the internet is transforming how we think about and exercise our rights to free expression and even free association. The internet offers an unprecedented platform to express opinions easily and to a potentially global audience. Indeed, a 2011 report by the UN Special Rapportuer on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression found that "By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an "enabler" of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole".

It also provides the opportunity for people to associate in digital communities that transcend borders and to take collective action to further the interests of those communities. Perhaps slightly less fully realised than the previous two, but the digital realm is also beginning to shape democratic politics, for instance via online social change campaigns, and thus is influencing the right to self-determination.

Given all of these benefits,  it's unsurprising that internet access is increasingly being regarded as a fundamental right. A poll carried out by the BBC World Service in 2010 found that 79% of the 27,000 respondents from 26 countries felt that internet access should be a "fundamental right". What's more, of those questioned who already had internet access 78% believed it had "brought them greater freedom" whilst 90% thought it was a "good place to learn".

In 2009, the Finnish Government took the unprecedented step of making a 1mb internet connection a legal right for every citizen, a handful of other nations have also followed suit. Naturally, rolling this out on a global scale would require a huge amount of funding, not to mention all of the infrastructure that would first have to be put in place, but it seems clear it should feature in future discussions about enabling human rights and material advancement for citizens in developing nations.

Do human rights need to be reconfigured for the digital context?

Whilst levelling the playing field by expanding the numbers of people online can only be a good thing, the internet has undoubtedly brought new threats to human rights as well as benefits. The internet truly is a new frontier and our political, social and legal institutions have yet to fully get to grips with all of the implications it is having on those rights. Although digital technology may have had a democratising effect in some areas, it has also concentrated and enormous amount of power and capability in the hands of governments and multinational corporations.

Adequate checks and balances on that power have yet to materialise and must be designed from the ground up for the digital context. As previously mentioned, the foundation of most human rights in the digital context pre-date the digital age, such as a right to privacy, freedom of expression and security.

The right to privacy, recognised on the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which states "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence," [emphasis added] is the area where digital technology has undoubtedly had the most detrimental effect. It seems that in order to participate properly on the internet, along with all the positives that entails, global citizens must be willing to surrender their right to privacy as states and even corporations have been shown to routinely and systematically store, analyse and act upon the personal data of web users, seemingly indiscriminately.

The current scale and depth of surveillance far outstrips that of any other period in history, to the point where our collective right to privacy has never been so comprehensively violated. As the Snowden revelations illustrated, the collection of data was arbitrary – anyone and everyone was monitored from citizens to national allies – a clear violation of the right to privacy as set out above. This has to stop.

Governments argue that their surveillance has to balance citizens' rights to privacy with their right to security, also set out in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. It's not merely a case of states getting the balance wrong in favour of the latter, the whole assumption that the two are antithical is fundamentally flawed. The extent of surveillance is such that it is beginning to impinge not only the right to privacy, but also on the rights to free expression and association online, which as discussed above had been experiencing a boon.

Upholding human rights is central to international stability and in turn national security. When powerful nations such as the USA and the UK are so flagrantly undermining them, this sets a dangerous precedent for human rights to be disregarded elsewhere, both online and offline.

The oversight of rights in the digital context needs to catch up with the technology itself and that means governments, international organisations, NGOs, corporations and global citizens coming together to agree on acceptable limits to surveillance and to codify and uphold human rights in the digital context. Thankfully, this process has already begun, with a draft UN resolution being voted through in 2013 entitled 'The right to privacy in the digital age'. The challenge now is making sure it is put into practice and kept constantly reviewed as technology develops in new ways.

Ultimately, our human rights are essentially the same in the digital context as they are offline, but the way they are enforced, promoted and upheld needs to adapted. As mentioned earlier a dichotomy between the online/offline worlds isn't helpful. Going forward, it seems clear that internet access should become a fundamental right, due to the positive impact it can have on other rights and the economic, educational and cultural benefits it provides.

But for these positives to continue to outweigh the negatives some serious rolling back of state and corporate power is needed, and central to that will be the reaffirmation of our basic human rights, both in the online and offline realms.  

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