HRBDT Conference – Human Rights in a Digital Age

On 24 May 2018, The Human Rights, Big Data and Technology (HRBDT) Project, based at the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, held a full day conference at the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Geneva. The conference, titled Human Rights in a Digital Age, brought together academics, civil society, diplomats, representatives from international organisations, and legal practitioners to discuss three major topics: (1) the advancement of human rights in the digital age; (2) the risks and challenge to human rights in the digital age; and (3) responses to these risks and challenges and the development of human rights frameworks in the digital age.

After an introduction by Robert Roth (Director, Geneva Academy), and an overview of the HRBDT Project by Lorna McGregor (Principal Investigator and Co-Director, HRBDT Project), the conference was opened by a keynote speech delivered by Peggy Hicks (Director, Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). She likened new technologies to a life-saving drug that comes with a risk of toxicity: new technologies offer great opportunities but if improperly used or abused these technologies risk harm. Peggy Hicks spoke particularly about “three baskets of risk”. These are to the right to privacy, to freedom of expression and to equality and non-discrimination. She also addressed the challenges in regulating the digital space to secure these rights, noting that how we regulate the digital space is problematic because regulation by States is too slow, inflexible and requires high levels of expertise. She concluded her presentation by reiterating the importance of cross-sector knowledge exchanges to break down barriers and enable cooperation to ensure the “drug” retains its life-saving qualities while eliminating toxicity.

The first panel session considered “Advancing Human Rights in the Digital Age.” With panellists primarily from the humanitarian field, the discussion focused both on the ways in which technology can make humanitarian aid more effective and the danger of certain technology falling in the wrong hands. It was highlighted that new technologies can enable very accurate predictions of population displacement and that this can assist quicker and more efficient responses. However, having such information brings new questions of responsibility allocation. Data protection must also remain central to endeavours in the digital age and particularly in the context of humanitarian activities where affected individuals and groups are likely to be in particularly vulnerable positions. Transparency and accountability must therefore be central to any work being done in the digital age. The use of technologies by parties to conflicts for different purposes must also be considered, such as to distribute ‘fake news’, hate speech, propaganda, and more for malevolent purposes. The panellists concluded that it is not only their job to enhance their work through technology, but also to mitigate potential adverse effects of technology in the wrong hands.

The second panel spoke about the “Risks and Challenges in the Digital Age”. The challenges discussed in this session focused on freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and equality and non-discrimination, with reference to the wide range of rights that are affected. Some of the challenges around freedom of expression include: (1) the internet infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies whose monopolies limit media pluralism and diversity; (2) lower standards of freedom of expression are employed online than are permitted under international law; and (3) there is a lack of transparency in how private entities moderate online content, making accountability a challenge. In regard to privacy, discussion focused on the blurring of the distinction between public and private space and what that means for the protection of the right to privacy. Also discussed was the difficulty of distinguishing between anonymous and personal data in the practice of social media intelligence gathering, posing a challenge to the human rights framework. Finally, the dangers of discrimination arising from data-supported algorithmic decision-making were noted, particularly given the way in which algorithms are increasingly used in policing, advertising and recruitment. Such techniques are infiltrating all areas of life and it is therefore important to understand and respond to any discriminatory features and effects. The panellists highlighted the specific effects for individuals and civil society, as well as for particular groups in society, such as human rights defenders. Solutions were also part of the discussion, with an emphasis on the importance of effective regulation and in thinking how artificial intelligence (AI), and specifically algorithms, should be audited to seek to ensure that they do not discriminate.

Having discussed the potential of big data, AI and smart technologies in humanitarian settings, as well as the risks and challenges to human rights in the digital age, the final panel focused on “Responding to Risks and Challenges”. The speakers discussed approaches to ensuring compliance with international standards and norms and how challenges to human rights are tackled in different settings around the world. A particular focus was also given to those States that lack adequate data protection laws. Each panellist demonstrated the importance of upholding human rights and ensuring transparency and accountability in the digital age. One panellist used the UK Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 to illustrate how independent oversight is achieved and the challenges faced specifically in judging proportionality in the context of bulk interception, bulk equipment interference, bulk acquisition of communication data and the retention of bulk personal data sets. Additionally, the panellists emphasised bringing together different sectors to learn from one another and to cooperate to address and anticipate risks. Among the observations was that a comprehensive international legal human rights framework already exists and that it should apply online as it does offline: key discussions should focus instead on how to achieve better implementation.

This conference brought together a wide array of experts to consider some of the most crucial questions we have to ask ourselves in this era of big data and AI. As Maurice Sunkin (Co-Director, HRBDT Project) reflected in his closing remarks, “this field of new technologies represents a real challenge because of its rapid pace and unknown future.” This requires collaborative approaches across sectors and disciplines to address not only the current challenges, but also to future-proof new technologies and responses thereto to ensure that human rights are upheld.

For a more in-depth coverage of the conference, please look out for our conference report, which will be available on our website soon.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.