What Does Digital Life Mean For Human Rights? - RightsInfo

What Does Digital Life Mean For Human Rights?

The internet has created new ways for people to exercise their rights to freedom of thought and expression, giving a voice to millions around the world. But it has also raised new challenges for human rights, particularly in the realm of privacy and security.

Human Rights for Digital Living

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Our lives are being digitalised at break-neck speed. Almost everything that we do offline can now be done online, and there is nothing to suggest that the pace of change is going to slow any time soon.

With change comes new challenges, but the good news is that we already have a framework of human rights protections that apply in cyberspace. Both the Council of Europe and the UN have made it clear that the rights which apply offline must also be protected online.

Certain rights, like the right to free expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention, have prospered in the digital age as new arenas emerge for people to communicate and share ideas. Others, like the right to a private life (guaranteed by Article 8) face new tensions.

The Challenge of Big Data

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The internet has facilitated new forms of censorship and surveillance, often justified by national security and counter-terrorism concerns.

An example of this is ‘big data’, which involves the collection of vast amounts of information about people through digital means. This is seen by many as a significant intrusion into people’s private lives which must be carefully controlled.

Human rights provide an important check on surveillance powers and the collection of personal data. In the case of Kennedy v United Kingdom, the Human Rights Court stressed that secret surveillance must be “strictly necessary for safeguarding democratic institutions” and that “there must be adequate and effective guarantees against abuse.”

The court also emphasised in S and Marper v the United Kingdom that “[t]he protection of personal data is of fundamental importance to a person’s enjoyment of his or her right to respect for private and family life.”

Cyberbullying and Online Abuse

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There are also increasingly widespread problems with online abuse. The open expression of racist, sexist and other prejudicial views is not unique to cyberspace, but it has been fuelled by online forums which enable users to participate anonymously and without fear of social reprisal. The internet has also be used to facilitate new forms of abuse like ‘revenge porn’, which can have devastating consequences for victims.

Again, human rights provide a framework to address these problems. For example, concerns about privacy were at the centre of new laws targeting revenge porn, which make it a criminal offence to disclose a ‘private sexual photograph or film’ without the consent of the subject, and with the intention of causing distress.

The head of the Crown Prosecution Service recently announced that online hate crimes will now be treated “as seriously as those committed face to face”.

Fair Access to the Internet

Human rights are also being used to ensure that access to the opportunities available in cyberspace is not being restricted in a discriminatory way. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that countries must take appropriate measures to promote access to the internet and other technologies for persons with disabilities.

The challenges faced by human rights in cyberspace are only going to grow as technology continues to progress. But with the necessary protections in place, the internet can be a vital gateway to human rights for everyone.

Follow the links below to read more about human rights in cyberspace:

Featured image from Unsplash.com.

Help us increase understanding and support for human rights in the UK.

About the Author

James Reynolds

James manages programmes for a charity called ISLP-UK, a network of lawyers working on key international development issues. Before joining ISLP, James was a corporate tax lawyer at Allen & Overy. He is part of the RightsInfo volunteer team. View all posts by James Reynolds.
What Does Digital Life Mean For Human Rights?
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