The Implications for Human Rights in the Digital Age­­


Sep 3, 2021

A group of people displayed over a map showing digital connections, image by metamorworks/Getty Images

Image by metamorworks/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Encompass on September 3, 2021.

Cyberspace and online platforms, and their underpinning digital technologies, have played a central role in economies and societies becoming more reliant on Information and Communication Technology. This has many implications for people's human rights and fundamental freedoms, both positive and negative.

Digital technologies can provide tools that help people exercise and safeguard their rights and freedoms. For example, the Internet and other communication technologies offer numerous opportunities for promoting the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Online platforms provide the means to reach wider audiences, including traditionally disenfranchised or marginalised communities, and they facilitate the active practice of freedom of opinion and expression throughout online spaces, including in otherwise more restrictive countries and societies.

In this regard, digital technologies have contributed to a reshaping of the civic space, expanding it to online communities, platforms and fora. This has also had positive repercussions for the ability of human rights defenders to organise, plan, and coordinate their activities, in the digital and physical worlds.

The growing importance of digital tech and online spaces also comes with risks and threats that can undermine human rights and democratic values. Malicious groups and organisations have a raft of instruments available to them for these purposes, ranging from mis- and dis-information, to mass online surveillance and the capabilities to restrict online discourse.

In the wrong hands, digital tools can be used to spread false or misleading information at scale and to target vulnerable and at-risk communities and individuals with greater sophistication and speed. For example, the accelerating spread of mis- and dis-information through digital platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the physical wellbeing of individuals globally. Also, greater exposure to false information and narratives about COVID has been linked to a rise in hate incidents both online and offline.

Certain countries and organisations have used targeted Internet shutdowns and other tactics to restrict data flows and impose controls on digital services within national boundaries. This contributes to a trend towards a so-called 'splinternet': a fragmentation of digital systems and services along national, judicial or economic boundaries including through the development of distinct Internet architectures. Controlling the flow of communications and information, and the ability of civil society to organise, can undermine the right to peaceful assembly and association, and disrupt the work of human rights defenders and wider societal and political activism and mobilisation.

So, what can be done? A recent RAND Europe report investigated how capacity-building approaches could be leveraged to foster human rights in the digital age. Capacity-building involves using a range of tools to develop and bring together the necessary skills, competences and abilities of relevant institutions and individuals in a specific area of work; in this case to foster and strengthen the understanding, safeguarding, and exercising of human rights significantly influenced by digital technologies.

A wide range of capacity-building initiatives have been implemented with support from Western governments and international organisations in recent years. These provide a potential platform for strengthening the capabilities of governance and public institutions and may also help raise awareness of specific issues, such as human rights, among the general population. They may also equip practitioners, such as human rights defenders, with the necessary tools and skills to face threats concerning specific issues,including in authoritarian contexts and more restrictive societies.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for fostering and protecting human rights in the digital age.

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Ultimately, the report finds that there is no individual, optimal capacity-building intervention, or one-size-fits-all approach for fostering and protecting human rights in the digital age. Institutions and organisations working on human rights and cybersecurity capacity building could consider the wide range of options available and design strategic approaches that combine different initiatives in a coherent manner. Adopting such an approach could help clarify overarching priorities, embed measures within the local context of participating countries and identify opportunities for increasing political buy-in to these measures with target audiences.

Also, governments, international organisations, and other public and private actors may need to recognise that human rights can no longer be protected and promoted through separate approaches to offline and online activities and behaviours. A holistic approach, which combines and embeds a focus on human rights in both the physical and digital contexts through actions implemented via different levers of power, could be taken.

The digital age provides tremendous opportunities to advance the safeguarding and exercising of human rights and fundamental freedoms. As work is done to advance technical skills and competences, governments and organisations may need to ensure adequate attention and provisions are embedded to harness opportunities for human rights as well.

Fiona Quimbre is a research analyst and Sam Stockwell is a research assistant in the defence, security and infrastructure group at RAND Europe.

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