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.

Human Rights and Planet Earth

Global warming

This particular exchange caught my eye in the latest issue of the Human Rights Quarterly, in Thomas Krapf’s “The Last Witness to the Drafting Process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Interview with Stéphane Frédéric Hessel.”

Krapf: Did the authors of the Declaration, as they were working on the text, have any awareness that they might be missing opportunities of obtaining agreement on important issues?

Hessel: To begin with, let’s say that at the time there was a problem which was not even taken up. This is the issue of man’s relating to the planet; the issue, which today, we call environmental problems. Today, these have become extremely important. At that time they were not taken into account. It was believed that the resources of the earth could be exploited indefinitely, that it would be possible to continue developing all forms of growth without running the risk of many failures. Today, we know that these failures are looming, and that they are already very close at hand. Possibly, it will not be possible to live on this earth.

HRQ Vol. 35, No. 3, August 2013, pp. 753-768

For additional commentary on environmental devastation from a human rights perspective, see Dr. Joel  Filartiga’s eloquent remarks quoted in the IntLawGrrl post Dr. Filartiga, torture and the environment.