Author: Vassilia Orfanou, PhD, Post Doc
Headline Diplomat eMagazine
The COVID-19 pandemic has made visible the advantages of digitisation. Structural and historical inequalities and the risks associated with social, political, and economic exclusion have equally arisen between those who can adapt to the digital world and those who lack that possibility.
Educational level, occupation, age, or gender are some factors determining the digital skills gap. For this reason, digitisation seems unequal in the face of unequal contexts. The democratising potential of digital tools disappears if the rights of groups in a situation of vulnerability or disadvantage are not made visible and protected, such as people with less education, older people, people with disabilities, low income, or living in rural or small population centers.
The new digital ecosystem poses additional challenges. Experts documented in a Pew Research: “Concerns about democracy in the digital age” – putting the powers of technology in the hands of the few. Kevin Gross, an independent technology consultant, commented, “Technology can improve or undermine democracy depending on how it is used and who controls it. Right now, it is controlled by too few. The few are not going to share willingly. I don’t expect this to change significantly by 2030. History knows that when a great deal of power is concentrated in the hands of a few, the outcome is not good for the many, not good for democracy.”
According to the United Nations Office of the Human Rights (UNOHR), the digital space can be used to “suppress, limit and violate rights, for example, through surveillance, censorship, online harassment, algorithm-induced bias, and automated decision-making systems.” The misuse of this space can therefore affect individuals and groups.
However, we cannot deny that the Internet, digital tools, and the call for open data are for the good of the public (citizens, governments, and companies). Therefore, they are being redesigned and regulated to have more fairness, equality, and sovereignty in a way where some of these issues are addressed. Interestingly, new regulations are emerging on how these challenges are resolved to make the new data economy respect the general public’s rights – the citizens, organisations, and the States (especially in Europe). How effective are these regulations, and what’s the general view of the digital ecosystem from a human rights angle?
We are witnessing the digital transformation of the economy and society. Some authors describe it as “digital disruption,” due to the appearance of digital technologies that allow innovative products and services. New digital enablers are being added to the classic digital engines of developing and developed nations’ economies: 4G, big data and cloud services, 5G, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, etc. This “digital disruption” is possible thanks to:
- The abundance of data produced by users through their devices or by sensors that measure the physical variables of the environment.
- The great storage, communication, and data processing capacity is made possible by cloud services, top tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (GAFA), and the communications network (fiber, 4G, 5G). According to Matt Kain, the Vice President, APAC Regional Head of Digital, Infosys, “The advent of 5G, internet of things (IoT) and the household ecosystems of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon will lead to the creation of more data than most people can comprehend. If you think those companies know you now, think again — they are only getting started.” Companies continue to increase spending on research and development, which enables the creation of new generations of products.
- The new calculation algorithms, in particular those related to autonomous learning such as Machine Learning or Deep Learning, produced by advancements in AI. Currently, these algorithms are the core of the search and recommendation systems of the large online platforms, and their use is spreading to all elements of the digital ecosystem.
- And finally, the adoption of open innovation, most recently in the European Union. Open data, open source, open algorithms, etc., which are the key drivers for reducing the time to market and the development cost of new products.
However, the digital transformation/disruption does not reach all sectors of the economy at the same time. It is advancing rapidly in sectors such as communications, information media, entertainment, technology products, and services, or financial services; it is beginning in large essential public services (health, education, security, etc.) and broad sectors of the economy such as construction, manufacturing or energy. Yet it has barely begun.
The COVID-19 confinements to which we have been subjected during the pandemic have greatly accelerated this process by several years, according to a survey by McKinsey.
“The COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business.” The report, which is about the outcome of a McKinsey Global Survey of executives, concluded that “companies have accelerated the digitisation of their customer and supply-chain interactions and their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.”
Citizens and companies have been forced to digitise in a hurry to maintain their activities as much as possible. Countries’ response has been very different depending on the strength of their digital sector, the degree of digital transformation of their economy, and their dependence on the global digital ecosystem. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of participating in the global digital ecosystem and the challenge of its governance.
Therefore, this article will analyse the position of Europe in the global digital ecosystem and the potential that human rights initiatives can have on its data-driven development. We will also analyse the European strategic vision and the European initiatives, fundamentally regulatory, that it is carrying out in its eagerness to defend the rights of European citizens in the global digital ecosystem, participate in its governance and safeguard its digital sovereignty.
The internet as a human right
As the European Commission’s Data Act will aim to ensure a fair and innovative digital ecosystem in Europe, further questions are now trooping in on the issue of privacies, and piracy, among others. However, the links and interrelationships between the law and the new digital ecosystem cover diverse areas that impact people’s daily lives.
In the summer of 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared access to the Internet as a human right, requiring countries to provide an accessible and affordable service for all and announcing guaranteeing access to new technologies as a priority.
The resolution was that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online.” The General Assembly also backs the rights to privacy of individuals and organisations in the digital age, saying it “has adopted a consensus resolution strongly backing the right to privacy, calling on all countries [to] take measures to end activities that violate this fundamental ‘tenet of a democratic society.'”
Also, there is a right to privacy in technological environments. Everyone has the right to the protection of their data. As a development of the fundamental rights to intimacy, honor, image, and dignity in the digital world, the right to privacy of individuals and, specifically, the privacy of online communications must be recognised. The right to control the use and destination of personal data must be guaranteed to avoid the collection, communication, and treatment of these in an illegal or harmful way for the dignity and rights of the interested parties.
Also, everyone has the right to control their identity on the network and to avoid unwanted interference by third parties in its management. The digital identity of the person, as a representation of oneself on the Internet, is configured through the free and voluntary activity generated on the network and from the activity of others. The management of digital identity, as a representation of the ability to control our personal information and decide its use by third parties, is governed by the principles of visibility, reputation, and privacy of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Data Protection Law Enforcement Directive and other rules concerning the protection of personal data. For example, privacy and data protection rights are enshrined in the EU Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Human rights must adapt to the digital age
In 2020 when Europe started strengthening its push for a new data ecosystem that will allow for interoperable data exchange between companies within the ecosystem, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proposed that human rights be recognised on the Internet.
He warned that they must adapt to the digital age because many of the new technologies can be used for extortion and violate the privacy of individuals. In the opening speech of the 43rd UN Human Rights Council session, Guterres made “a call for action” in which he mentioned all the risks that the inappropriate use of technology could entail for citizens.
“Advances such as facial recognition programs, digital identification, and biotechnology must not be used to erode human rights, increase inequalities or exacerbate existing discrimination,” he said.
“New technologies are too often used to violate rights and privacy through surveillance, repression and online harassment and hate,” Guterres also said in a tweet. “Through our UN Human Rights Call to Action we will advocate for the protection of all rights online and offline.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet also raised the possibility of regulating cyberspace and artificial intelligence to prevent them from becoming an ungovernable space, “a black hole in terms of human rights”.
“The same rights exist on the Internet as outside of it,” she assured. Among the risks that Bachellet listed are the misuse of big data, both to undermine privacy and intervene in elections, problems related to freedom of expression, and incitement to hatred and violence.
Wishing to read more about this?
Stay tuned for the second article series, soon.
Featured photo by Pavel Danilyuk, Pexels.