Last week, we explored the conceptual challenges to the universal human rights framework that have been brought by digital technology. Today, we shift from conceptual to concrete real world challenges, to explore the various ways digital technology may negatively affect actual enjoyment of human rights.
I. Real World Disruption of the Practical Enjoyment of Human Rights
As new technologies have emerged, public debate around how human rights are impacted has tended to be reactive, piecemeal, and often impractical. Given that so many dimensions of society have been disrupted by digital technology, it has been difficult for policymakers to see the bigger trends, to understand the relationship between the parts, and to assess top priorities. It’s time for policymakers to be more proactive and holistic, and to advance practical solutions to several priority global human rights challenges.
The Digital Divide
One traditional human rights concern that has been aggravated by digital technology is global inequality. This is caused by the lack of access to technology, rather than technology itself. While those of us who live in the digital ecosystem can’t remember what daily life is like without Internet connectivity or our digital devices, the majority of people in the world have zero digital experience. Globally, nearly six out of ten people are not connected to the Internet. Even more stark is the fact that roughly 65 percent of people in the developing world do not yet use the Internet. And women generally have less access to the Internet (another expression of gender inequality), as do people living in rural areas.
These digital divides have the potential to significantly exacerbate existing global inequality and lead to conditions where conflict is more likely. Nearly all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September depend on expanding access to information and communications technology infrastructure around the planet. But the prospect of reaching the UN goal of universal Internet access in the developing world by 2020 does not look realistic at the current rate. Narrowing the digital divide must be ranked as a top human rights priority.
Digitally Facilitated Repression
Digital technology can also facilitate repression. Authoritarian governments unfortunately have caught up to — and in many ways surpassed — human rights activists in their sophisticated use of digital technology. They now have enhanced capacities to censor expression, block or filter access to information, monitor online activity, and more effectively and efficiently control populations than they did in the pre-digital world. Unfortunately, digital technology has provided new comparative advantages to the most sophisticated authoritarian systems.
Perhaps the most advanced version of cyber repression is seen in China where a combination of digital tools for mass surveillance, censorship, and social monitoring provide a rich and comprehensive means of social and political control. In an “old school” dimension of its digital social-monitoring system, China apparently employs two million Internet police who are tasked with monitoring online activity of citizens and sifting through millions of messages on social media and micro-blogging sites. This data is compiled into government reports about the potential for social unrest and is used to clamp down on political and social activity. Just in late February, it was reported that 580 social media accounts were suspended by China’s Cyberspace Administration after allegations that users ignored their social responsibilities, abused their influence, and stained the honor of the state.
The Chinese digital credit rating system is a state of the art example of where big data could facilitate Big Brother at a whole new level. This social-credit rating blends comprehensive online monitoring with algorithms aimed at establishing correlations between negative social behavior and Internet activity. It is currently being used to assess financial credit worthiness, but its intended future use may be for much broader social control — reportedly to assess citizen’s overall trustworthiness and honesty, and to assign citizenship scores based on “patriotic criteria.”
In light of these developments, one of the most fundamental questions that must be addressed is: How can we ensure technology is used to enhance freedom, rather than to facilitate repression or other nefarious objectives? Making progress on this question alone would be a big contribution to international human rights.
Violations in the Name of Security
Technology has exacerbated another problem from the pre-digital era: human rights violations committed in the name of national security and counterterrorism, even by democratic, human rights-respecting governments. New generations of digital technology have brought many significant changes to government capacities in law enforcement, counterterrorism, and foreign surveillance. The human rights implications of many of these new capacities were not fully appreciated before they were put to use. But security agencies around the world have been unwilling to rein in those new capacities, despite our deeper understanding of those implications.
Furthermore, in many countries facing terror threats, imposition of vague and expansive cyber-related laws — without adequately considering or protecting human rights — has led to erosion of some very basic human rights principles (e.g., that surveillance programs must be both necessary and proportionate). Ambiguous, imprecise, and unnecessarily intrusive counterterrorism laws have been replicated around the world by governments of all stripes. Even governments that see themselves as human rights champions have found it difficult to bring their counterterrorism activities under the rule of law.
For example, notwithstanding all the post-Snowden uproar in Europe about US mass surveillance, the French parliament adopted a “Law reinforcing measures relating to the fight against terrorism” in November 2014 that raises issues of compatibility with the rights to free movement, to the presumption of innocence, and to free expression. The UK’s Investigatory Power’s Bill, in its current form, would legalize mass global surveillance by UK security agencies, and allow extraterritorial hacking of computers, phones, and networks. And some members of the Freedom Online Coalition — a group of 29 governments convened for the specific purpose of reinforcing human rights protections online — continue to call for backdoors or exceptional access to encryption for themselves, without recognizing that such actions not only threaten the protection of human rights and privacy, but also undermine their security.
The saddest aspect of this trend is the role-modeling dimension: Governments that see themselves as human rights-respecting democracies are modeling practices that are being replicated in other more repressive environments. They are also giving a form of cover and permission to undermine human rights. Respect for rights and adherence to the rule of law, even and especially in the context of terrorism, is a hallmark of strength in democratic systems, and a principled distinction with authoritarian systems. These governments must engage in urgent self-examination of whether and how their counterterrorism policies practices meet universal human rights principles, and should become vocal advocates for adherence to the rule of law in the digital context.
Systemic Cyber Vulnerability and Digital Insecurity
Finally, in a context where everything is being digitally connected and links between the physical world and the cyber realm are expanding, society-wide digital insecurity and cyber vulnerability may be the biggest systemic threat of all. As more sectors of society have been digitized, the Internet has become the backbone of all infrastructures. While that interconnectivity and interdependence certainly has its upsides, one of the biggest risks is an exponential increase in cyber vulnerability to which all sectors of society are now subject.
The unprecedented cyber attack on a Ukrainian power plant in December, possibly by state-sponsored hackers from Russia, is a case in point. The distributed, decentralized nature of the Internet, which was originally seen as a feature that provided resilience, has made it difficult to systematically address this complex global vulnerability. The integrity and availability of digital information and infrastructure are under constant threat. Viruses, malware, and social engineering schemes have grown more sophisticated. Criminal hacking has grown more lucrative and ransom-ware has proliferated. And the inability to quickly and consistently detect infiltration with confidence, is adding to the growing sense of unease about society-wide reliance on digital infrastructure. The risk of a cascading systemic cyber meltdown is growing. The concept of cyber-Armageddon is no longer just the stuff of bad sci-fi movies, but is currently being gamed out in national security situation rooms around the world. In this interconnected digital world, the now-widespread ability to use digital means to cause physical damage represents yet another avenue to threaten one of the most basic human rights: the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
II. Reinforcing Human Rights in the Digital Ecosystem
These examples raise alarm bells about how both human rights protections and the human rights governance framework are being threatened in the digital context. There is a pressing need to find a way to capitalize on the upsides of digital technology while reducing the human rights risks. A core question is: How do we reinforce the international human rights law framework that already exists, but make it more relevant and potent in the digital context? In effect, we are in a rhetorical battle for the dominant narrative of the 21st century. How do we meet this challenge and reinforce the relevance of human rights principles in the global digital governance ecosystem? Reinforcing the following themes will help:
Universal Human Rights Fit the Trans-Boundary Internet Environment
Arguably, the universal human rights system was ahead of its time. As the first truly global, trans-boundary framework — it is peculiarly well-suited for the Internet ecosystem. In some ways, the essential quality of “universality” makes human rights more relevant and readily applicable in the trans-border digital context than in the pre-digital environment. Human rights inhere in the human person, regardless of government, culture, or nationality, and are universally applicable without regard to geographical boundaries — much like how the Internet already operates.
As a first step in meeting the challenges wrought by digital technology, it is important to recognize that universal human rights fit the trans-boundary Internet environment quite well. We do not need a new human rights framework; we need a modified articulation of how to apply existing human right principles and law in the current global context.
Protection of Human Rights is an Essential Element of National Security
Second, since the formation of the UN more than 70 years ago, human rights principles have been understood to play an essential role in helping provide international peace and security. Human rights-respecting governments also have generally understood that respect for human rights and the rule of law reinforces their strength, rather than diminishing it. In our digitally interconnected and vulnerable context, where global and domestic terrorism are spreading, many governments have been tempted to utilize new digital technologies without regard for human rights, and without understanding the consequences of disregarding these values for security.
One of the most unfortunate and deleterious narratives that has emerged in the context of digital technology and rising terrorism is that there is a zero-sum choice between protecting national security and respecting human rights. Public framing of these issues starts with a binary opposition that either we prioritize counterterrorism or we protect rights and privacy, but we can’t do both — especially when technology is involved. Undermining digital security (of which privacy is an important dimension) in the name of national security in nonsensical in the interconnected digital context. The reality is that providing security is a human rights priority, and protecting privacy and human rights is an important dimension of security. While much of the public debate has been framed in simplistic binary oppositions, such framing distracts us from the real task, which is to optimize for both security and freedom, which turn out to be mutually interdependent in the digital, connected context.
National security and international peace and security depend on governments’ willingness to bring their technological counterterrorism capacities under the rule of law, and to reconcile their responsibility to fight terror with their human rights obligations. A paradigm shift in the global approach to counterterrorism in the interconnected digital context will be needed, so that protection of freedom and human rights is understood again to be essential to protection of national and international security.
Digital Security is a Shared National Security, Economic Security, and Human Rights Priority
Cyber resilience and digital security have become the heart of national security, international security, economic security, personal security, and human rights protection. Reliable functioning of critical Internet infrastructure is the backbone of the global economy, national security, as well as of human rights work. Protection of this critical infrastructure from hacking or attack is a shared priority for the all of these actors and communities, as is digital security for users and their data. It is worth underscoring again that undermining digital security in the name of national security in nonsensical in the interconnected digital context.
Governments must embrace their obligation to provide security to citizens by strengthening the resilience of critical systems to withstand attack, as well as by shoring up capacities to thwart catastrophic cyber offensives in the first place. To the extent that the ability to thwart or withstand attack discourages future attacks, cyber resilience and digital security will enhance national security and strength on multiple levels. To protect consumer interests, private sector actors need to embrace their responsibility to protect users’ personal data as their first obligation. The trust of their users, as well as their economic bottom lines, will depend on it. How are these tied to human rights? Because privacy and digital security are essential to the exercise of citizens’ freedoms. Even more to the point, digital security is now intimately connected to the physical security of human rights defenders. And as connectivity expands in the efforts to overcome digital divides, basic digital hygiene and education must be packaged with connectivity by default for users globally. In our global, digital context all actors need to become more sophisticated in how they approach digital security.
The goal of moving toward a less vulnerable, more secure digital future is already a shared global priority. New multi-stakeholder alliances will emerge, based on recognition that human rights protection, national and international security, and protection of the open, interoperable Internet platform for innovation — are all interrelated and interdependent. The interests of citizens, governments, and the private sector are aligned around the need for digital security. Going forward, digital security should serve as an important organizing principle around which creative coalitions will form and these new alliances will provide a basis for collaboration about governance responsibilities in the digital ecosystem.
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In sum, we are in the midst of a massive digital transformation that has affected every aspect of society. Digital technology has brought many challenges to the enjoyment of human rights, to security, and to governance. The test for governments, private sector actors, members of civil society, and the technology community is whether through multi-stakeholder collaboration they can develop proactive and holistic policies that ensure that technology is used to increase both freedom and security, and that the benefits of digital technology is spread to people around the globe.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.