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A Universal Declaration on Digital Rights: Your questions answered

Earlier in April, the panelists for our webinar, ”Protecting people’s rights in the digital age: The case for a Universal Declaration on Digital Rights” had a lively and far-ranging conversation as part of the Ecosystems Day on the Skoll World Forum.

Why is there a need for globally agreed fair principles and standards that articulate the rights of all people in the digital age?

It goes without saying that digital technologies and the Internet have made it easier to communicate and have provided significant opportunities for the advancement of human development, and realization and exercise of human rights. Real-life experiences are not only being reflected in the digital sphere, but there is an amplification of existing inequalities, discriminations and biases, and online violence and crime. More and more we are seeing new ways in which the enjoyments of human rights are disrupted and infringed upon. For instance, we are witnessing rape in the Metaverse, invasions of privacy, internet shutdowns, automated decision-making locking the most vulnerable out of essential services, and algorithms replicating and amplifying existing stereotypes.​​

There is uneven regulation of the digital technology sector across different jurisdictions as well as reliance on voluntary principles and standards. This reliance on self-regulation is resulting in opaque practices and limited redress that put society’s most vulnerable, including women and girls, at risk of exploitation, abuse, and exclusion.  

This is why we need an intersectional feminist informed Universal Declaration on Digital Rights that: 

  • provides a universally agreed upon set of principles and standards that articulate the rights of all people in the digital space, guarantee the protection of fundamental rights, and regulate human interactions;  
  • is rooted in existing human rights law and underpinned by an intersectional feminist and anti-discrimination analysis; and
  • addresses the accountability of governments, the technology industry, and other players responsible for this space. 

Your questions answered:

There was so much ground to cover in our recent webinar, in fact, that we didn’t get to all of the audience questions in the time we had, so we have pulled together this Q&A to keep the conversation going:

Q: Does the digital world need new human rights? Some believe that the rights underpinned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions may be applied in the digital age. Why then do we need a separate declaration on digital rights?

A: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international agreement on the basic principles of human rights and freedoms that everyone is entitled to. It, and subsequent agreements at international and regional levels, recognize the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all people. However, the challenge is applying these rights in the digital age. Granted some rights, in some instances, may provide the needed protection in the digital sphere. But, there are challenges in their application around issues such as: 

  • Ensuring transparency of automated decisions and provision for redress rights. 
  • Protecting citizens’ access to the Internet. 
  • Applying a human rights based approach to online content moderation.
  • Protecting people from human rights violations that are outside the framing of our current laws, e.g. rape in the Metaverse or deepfakes used for image-based sexual abuse.

Q: How do we ensure uniformity in laws and the application of these laws across different countries? What system do we use as the benchmark?

A: Having a universally applicable declaration on digital rights will ensure a benchmark on the application and protection of human rights on the Internet and digital technologies across different countries. 

Q. How might we tackle scenarios where there is a conflict in law between different rights, for example holding misogynistic/abusive users of Facebook/YouTube accountable while there are privacy laws or laws protecting the right to freedom of expression?

A: Tensions arise when efforts to ensure safety and protect users from online violence and exploitation is regarded as infringing on the freedom of expression and privacy of other users. In the first instance, there are concerns that regulating what users post online and holding digital service providers liable for user-generated content online may lead to self-censorship and/or digital services providers erring on the side of caution and removing content which may, in turn, infringe on users’ freedom of expression, for example.

There are ongoing debates about how these rights to privacy, freedom of expression and protection online can coincide in the digital space. A key opportunity is a principle, established under international human rights law, that in the event of a crime or violation of the rights of others, freedom of expression of alleged offenders can be limited if the limitations are legal, necessary and proportionate. 

  • Legal: This means that there is a law that is clear and unambiguous protecting the infringed right.
  • Necessary: This means that the law is designed to protect individual rights and public concerns.
  • Proportionate: This means that the restriction is necessary to protect legitimate rights but narrowly drawn to address the objective, meaning a fair balance is struck between protecting fundamental rights and the interests of the community.

For this approach to be effective there must be legal clarity and certainty of the relationship and interaction of all rights in the digital age. A universal declaration would be an important framework to provide that clarity and certainty. 

What is next in the movement to create a Universal Declaration on Digital Rights (UDDR)? 

With Women Leading in Artificial Intelligence, Equality Now proposes to mobilize the international community towards the creation of a Universal Declaration on Digital Rights (UDDR). 

We need more of you to join us, to bring more minds together to move this forward. If you are interested in joining us please reach out to info@equalitynow.org, we would be delighted to hear from you. 

Want to learn more? Explore our 2021 report Ending Online Sexual Exploitation And Abuse Of Women And Girls: A Call For International Standards.