Digital rights are *all* human rights, not just civil and political

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights consults with the field

This post was co-authored with Jonathan McCully

Last week, following our strategy meeting, the Digital Freedom Fund hosted the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, for a one-day consultation in preparation for his upcoming thematic report on the rise of the “digital welfare state” and its implications for the human rights of poor and vulnerable individuals.

This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives.

The consultation brought together 30 digital rights organisations from across Europe, who shared many examples of new technologies being deployed in the provision of various public services. Common themes emerged, from the increased use of risk indication scoring in identifying welfare fraud, to the mandating of welfare recipients to register for bio-metric identification cards, and the sharing of datasets between different public services and government departments.

While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights — particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy — this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights

At DFF, we subscribe to the mantra that “digital rights are human rights” and we define “digital rights” broadly as human rights applicable in the digital sphere. This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives. While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights –– particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy –– this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights such as the right to education, the right to housing, the right to health and, particularly relevant for this consultation, the right to social security.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts. In August last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression produced a detailed report on the influence of artificial intelligence on the global information environment. This follows on from thematic reports on the human rights implications of “killer robots” and “care robots” by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, respectively.

The poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has similarly placed the examination of automated decision-making and its impact on human rights at the core of his work. This can already be seen from his reports following his country visits to the United States and United Kingdom. In December 2017, following his visit to the United States, he reported on the datafication of the homeless population through systems designed to match homeless people with homeless services (i.e. coordinated entry systems) and the increased use of risk-assessment tools in pre-trial release and custody decisions. More recently, following his visit to the United Kingdom, he criticised the increased automation of various aspects of the benefits system and the “gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.” In these contexts, he observed that the poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

The next report will build upon this important work, and we hope that the regional consultation held last week will provide useful input in this regard. Our strategy meeting presented a great opportunity to bring together great digital rights minds who could provide the Special Rapporteur with an overview of the use of digital technologies in welfare systems across Europe and their impact. It was evident from the discussions that the digital welfare state raises serious human rights concerns; not only when it comes to the right to social security, but the right to privacy and data protection, the right to freedom of information, and the right to an effective remedy are also engaged. As one participant observed, the digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

It was clear from the room that participants were already exploring potential litigation strategies to push back against the digital welfare state, and we look forward to supporting them in this effort.

Cross-posted on the Digital Freedom Fund blog and Medium.

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Digital rights are human rights

As the boundaries between our online and offline lives blur, is there really a distinction between “digital” and other human rights?

UN Photo Eleanor Roosevelt

UN Photo | Eleanor Roosevelt, holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

What do we mean when we talk about “digital rights”? This is a fundamental question that influences the Digital Freedom Fund’s strategy as we define the parameters for supporting the work of activists and litigators in Europe.

A quick search online yields a variety of definitions, most of which focus on the relationship between human beings, computers, networks and devices. Some of the narrower ones focus on the issue of copyright exclusively.

As our lives are digitalised further, does this approach to defining the term make sense?

In many ways, we already live in the sci-fi future we once imagined. The internet of things is here. Our food is kept cold in what we used to call a fridge, but what is now a computer that also has the ability to freeze things. The main way in which we communicate with our colleagues, family and loved ones are our mobile devices and what happens on social media is alleged to have a significant impact on elections. Our data are being collected by governments and corporations alike. In all of these contexts, our basic human rights – our rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, privacy, and the like – are implicated. If there ever was a dividing line between “digital” rights and human rights, it has blurred to the point of irrelevance.

In line with the reality of our time, at DFF we work with a broad definition of digital rights for our grantmaking and field support activities. We consider digital rights to be human rights as applicable in the digital sphere. That is human rights in both physically constructed spaces, such as infrastructure and devices, and in spaces that are virtually constructed, like our online identities and communities.

If digital rights are human rights, then why use a different term? The label “digital rights” merely serves to pinpoint the sphere in which we are exercising our fundamental rights and freedoms. To draw concrete attention to an issue, using a term that expresses the context can help with framing and highlighting the issue in a compact manner. With our digital rights under threat on many fronts, this is important. Just as it was important, in 1995, for Hillary Clinton to state at the Women’s Congress in Beijing that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” and for President Obama in 2016 to stress that LGBT rights are human rights, we should all be aware that digital rights are human rights, too. And they need to be protected.

As we further engage with the digital rights community in Europe, we look forward to supporting their important human rights work and highlighting their successes in this space. Part of that mission also includes creating broader understanding that digital rights are indeed human rights. We hope you will join us in sharing that message.

This article has been cross-posted on the Digital Freedom Fund blog. To follow DFF’s work and be notified when we launch, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.