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Human Rights in the Digital Age

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Human Rights in the Digital Age

Human rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in accompanying covenants and instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While the responsibility for upholding, safeguarding and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms falls on nation-states, both individuals and associations, including private-sector actors and businesses, have also a role to play in such actions. This is because private-sector actors play a pivotal, and at times unique, role in organising, managing, providing access to, regulating and populating the internet. Such responsibilities and roles include those pertaining to: enabling connection to the internet, designing and maintaining hardware and operating systems, allocating web domains, hosting information, facilitating the aggregation, sharing and searching for information, producing and regulating access to content, connecting users and communities, selling goods and services, facilitating transactions, and collecting, repurposing and selling data.
The instant write-up provides an overview of key human rights and fundamental freedoms whose saliency and application are particularly affected by socio-technological developments that have occurred in recent decades and in the context of the so-called digital age.
Right to privacy
The right to privacy is recognised and guaranteed by Article 12 of the UDHR, Article 17 of the ICCPR, and other major international, regional and national measures. The right guarantees that all individuals are able to hold a private life, family, home and correspondence, and that they can choose when, where, how and to whom information about them is disclosed. It also guarantees the absence of arbitrary and unlawful interferences and excessive unsolicited interventions from government and other uninvited entities.
The right to privacy is intrinsically tied with other human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as democratic values and principles. It is a key right and an enabler for the enjoyment and exercise of other fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, the prohibition of discrimination, the right to health and others.
Implications in the digital age
In the digital age, the right to privacy is linked to informational privacy, a concept that covers information that exists or can be derived about a person and their life. In the online and digital context, informational privacy and the protection of the right to privacy are seen as encompassing not only substantive information contained in communications, but also metadata that, if aggregated and analysed, may help generate insights on individuals’ behaviours, relations, preferences, and identity. Various international and national legislative frameworks, and other measures, have been developed and implemented to provide relevant safeguards.
This includes international frameworks (e.g. international and regional instruments on the protection of personal data) and national data-protection and privacy legislation. While these measures and provisions have facilitated the exercise of the right to privacy in the digital age; in some instances, legislation has also been designed to promote or facilitate mass surveillance practices.
Right to freedom of opinion and expression
Guaranteed by Article 19 of the UDHR, Article 19 of the ICCPR, and many other major measures, the right to freedom of opinion and expression is interlinked with other human rights including the right to privacy, the right to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of information, and freedom of the press and the media. This right is all-encompassing and guarantees that all citizens should be able to seek, receive, impart and express their opinions, ideas and views openly through any means of communication without interference. Although the right to freedom of expression is inalienable and inviolable, restrictions to this right may apply for protecting the exercise of other rights (e.g. the right to dignity or freedom of religion) and safeguarding national security and public order.
Implications in the digital age
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is equally protected in the digital environment as it applies regardless of frontiers and through any media, in accordance with Articles 10 of the UDHR and ICCPR. Individuals should, therefore, be able to form and hold an opinion not only in their own mind, but also digitally, including by seeking access to and storing information and using available data, without external influences (e.g. public, private or algorithmic interventions). Individuals should also be able to circulate opinions and content, to share and express their views, and to receive and transfer information and ideas in the digital space, without interference from public or private actors and regardless of geographic boundaries. The exercising of this right assumes that all citizens should also have free and equal access to the internet and digital technologies.
Right to peaceful assembly and association
The right to peaceful assembly and association is recognised by Article 20 of the UDHR, as well as in Articles 21 and 22 of the ICCPR. This right recognises that individuals have a right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association with others, also to enable broader exercising of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. This is underpinned by a number of key principles, including a requirement for civil society actors and organisations to operate in a civic space where they have the ability to:
· Ensure the existence and effective operations of any peaceful association;
· Seek, receive and use resources and funding, and to mobilise resources available within society as well as from the international community and foreign donors under international human rights law; and
· Be governed by an equitable set of rules and regulations.
The rationale for these principles stems from an understanding that civil society and civil society organisations (CSOs) represent critical components and enablers for facilitating the promotion and upholding of human rights, democratic values and rule of law.
Implications in the digital age
The right to peaceful assembly and association is recognised to apply equally in the digital environment. Digital technologies can be used both as an instrument to facilitate the organisation and coordination of offline activities pertaining to the exercise of this right, as well as to establish digital spaces to exercise this right directly and fully in a digital context. As such, digital technology is recognised as a critical enabler and instrument necessary to exercise and enjoy the right to peaceful assembly and association.
Right to equal participation in political and public affairs
The safeguarding of the right to equal participation in political and public affairs is central to the development and sustainment of democratic societies and polities, as well as for the broader advancement of human rights through upholding the rule of law, social inclusion and economic development. This enshrines a right for all individuals to fully participate in and effectively influence public decision-making processes that affect them. Article 25 of ICCPR and the interpretative General Comment and jurisprudence adopted by the Human Rights Committee specify the obligations of states to provide relevant safeguards for participation in political and public affairs.
Implications in the digital age
The digital age can play both an enabling or stifling role for the right to equal participation in public and political affairs. As reported by the Office for the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), digital technologies and services, including social media platforms, have enabled new horizontal forms of socio-political mobilisation and participation. Digital technologies and applications, however, have also facilitated the implementation of mass surveillance and targeted monitoring activities, as well as the persecution of political opposition groups and vulnerable groups in non-democratic societies (e.g. political opposition movements, minorities, etc.). As such, digital technologies can be considered a double-edged sword as regards the facilitation of the implementation and safeguarding of the right to equal participation in political and public affairs.
Right to free and fair elections
This right is established in existing human rights law. In particular, Article 25 of the ICCPR recognises the right of citizens to take part in public and political affairs, either directly or through freely chosen representatives and to do so by voting in genuine and periodic elections. It is closely linked to other rights including those pertaining to freedom of expression, equal participation in public and political affairs, and privacy. The right to freedom of expression during election periods is, for example, a core pillar and enabler of the right to free and fair elections. In practice, the realisation of the right to free and fair elections may include lawful restrictions on the freedom of expression during an election period.
Implications in the digital age
In the digital age, links between the right to free and fair elections and others, such as the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy, have become increasingly salient due to the potential for personal data of voters to be vulnerable to risks of surveillance, interception and manipulation. The exploitation of digitalisation for novel forms of mass and targeted digital campaigns has raised concerns for and pressures on the right to privacy and data-protection safeguards. In some instances, digital technologies have been leveraged by actors for the purposes of electoral manipulation and interference, posing a direct threat to the safeguard and exercise of the right to free and fair elections. Digital communication technologies may, for example, be employed to confuse or mislead voters or leverage at scale targeted manipulation tactics through personalised appeals underpinned by big data analytics and mass communication tools. From an indirect perspective, digital technologies and personalised mass communication through social media have also led to the creation of so-called ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’, which have been highlighted as a challenge for the right to free and fair elections due to their associated risk of distortion for democratic deliberations.
Right to education
The right to education recognises that no individual should be denied education in conformity with his/her own religious and philosophical convictions. It encompasses primary, secondary and higher education, as well as fundamental education for those who did not receive primary education, the right to quality education in public and private institutions, and a right for parents to choose education approaches in conformity with their religious, philosophical, and moral convictions. Through this approach, the right entails safeguards enshrining a right to education including in the context of conflict, as well as for vulnerable groups, such as for women and girls, individuals with disabilities, migrants and refugees, and members of minorities and indigenous groups.
Implications in the digital age
The use of digital technologies has become ubiquitous not only in the context of sociopolitical activities, but also for the provision of basic services, including education. The adoption of digital technologies has notably been described as revolutionising education by facilitating access to and dissemination of knowledge, thus providing new learning opportunities, including by facilitating access to education through online education materials and e-learning. These novel tools and practices facilitate not only the multiplication of learning pathways for various communities and interest groups, but also enable the diversification of learning approaches. It should be noted, however, that the digitalisation of education delivery may also lead, inadvertently or purposefully, to the exclusion of individuals and disadvantaged parts of society who have no access to digital technologies and platforms. Other challenges associated with the right to education in the digital age pertain to the spreading of mis- and disinformation, which may negatively affect the education pathway of consumers of such information. For example, with regard to the right to health, misinformation may be conducive to the materialisation of health and safety risks for individuals crediting such information.
Right to health
The right to health is understood not as an obligation for states, international organisations or individuals to guarantee a person’s health. Rather, it provides a concept under which different principles of international law seek to recognise health as a basic human right and facilitate the establishment of standards and means to both implement the right to health and provide for the health needs of all individuals, including groups with specific needs.
The right to health and its safeguarding are closely linked with the realisation of other human rights recognised under international law. These include the right to social security, the right to food and the right to education – since access to education provides opportunities for protecting one’s health through, for example, access to relevant knowledge and services.
Implications in the digital age
The digital age has fostered several opportunities for strengthening human health, including through providing connectivity and digital technologies for innovative healthcare practices, such as e-health and telehealth.
Digital platforms also facilitate democratised access to health advice through internet connectivity and dedicated platforms. Equally, digitalisation and democratised access to digital technologies have produced risks to the health and wellbeing of various vulnerable populations and introduced new vulnerabilities to the right to health. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of mis- and disinformation spread through digital platforms on public health. Here, for example, we might cite false or misleading information incentivising unsubstantiated treatments or seeking to undermine the adoption of evidence-based public health measures, such as social distancing and the wearing of respiratory masks. Existing research also highlights the potential detrimental effects of digitalisation to the health and wellbeing of children due to heightened risks of exposure to harmful online content or abuse through digital platforms (e.g. child sexual exploitation).
The writer is a member of staff.

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