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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Read On! ‘Human Security and Human Rights under International Law: The Protections Offered to Persons Confronting Structural Vulnerability’

I am thrilled to post for the first time in IntLawGrrls and to share the publication of my book Human Security and Human Rights under International Law: The Protections Offered to Persons Confronting Structural Vulnerability (Hart Publishing, 2016).

This book considers the potential of human security as a protective tool within the international law of human rights. Indeed, it seems surprising given the centrality of human security to the human experience, that its connection with human rights had not yet been explored in a truly systematic way. The book attempts to address that gap in the literature and sustains that the human rights of persons, particularly those facing structural vulnerability, can be addressed more adequately if studied through the complementary lens of human security and not under human rights law alone. It takes both a legal and interdisciplinary approach, recognizing that human security and its relationship with human rights cuts across disciplinary boundaries.

Human security with its axis of freedom from fear, from want and from indignity, can more integrally encompass the inter-connected risks faced by individuals and groups in vulnerable conditions. At the same time, human rights law provides the normative legal grounding usually lacking in human security. International human rights norms, individualistic in nature and firstly enacted more than sixty years ago, present limits which translate into lack of protection for people globally. As a result, the collective and contextual conditions undergone by persons can be better met through the broader and more recent notion of human security, which emphasizes ‘critical (severe) and pervasive (widespread) threats’, and accentuates socioeconomic vulnerabilities as authentic security concerns. Indeed, as signaled by Sadako Ogata, human security is ‘the emerging paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities’.

The analysis follows a two-part approach. Firstly, it evaluates convergences between human security and all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural –and constructs a general framework for thought and action, the ‘human security – human rights synergy’. Secondly, it goes on to explore the practical application of this framework in the law and case-law of UN, European, Inter-American and African human rights bodies in the thematic cores of 1) violence against women and girls (VAW); 2) undocumented migrants and other non-citizens such as asylum-seekers and refugees; converging in 3) a particular examination of the conditions of female undocumented migrants. In the last chapter, the book systematizes this evidence to reveal and propose added values of human security to human rights law; and inversely, it indicates how human rights standards/indicators can deliver a needed more precise, normatively grounded and operational conception of human security.

These ‘interpretative synergies’ offer promise for shifting the boundaries of international human rights law: in constructing integrative approaches to fill legal gaps, better prevention and addressing protectively collective threats, and –in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- creating an ‘enabling environment’ to fulfil all human rights, especially for those not only confronting isolated moments of risk or individual human rights violations, but rather conditions of structural vulnerability affecting their everyday lives. Continue reading