Introduction to digital human rights

08.11.2018| Christian Kreutz
Digital human rights at the United Nations.
United Nations Building. Photo by acmoraes @ Flickr

Digital rights means different things to different people: From digital rights management to digital human rights. This post shall give you an overview on these different concepts. We will take a look how the focus on digital rights has shifted in the last 20 years and what are the challenges of applying such rights in cyberspace.

The shift in digital rights

In the early history of the Internet digital rights were of little importance, because the Internet was only accessible to trusted institutions such as universities. This changed with the start of the World Wide Web in the early 90s, when the internet was opened to everyone. In order to have a global functioning Internet its infrastructure needed to be regulated. For example to register domain names, which are critical to navigating websites. ICANN, a US-based organization, had a leading role from the start in dealing with topics such as domain ownership.

With the Internet economy boom more regulative questions emerge such as intellectual property rights. Do you remember when file sharing platforms such as Napster came up in the beginning of 2000, and it was first not illegal to share music online? These developments brought digital rights management (DRM) to the center of the digital rights discussion. Businesses had a vital interest in protecting their digital products.

But there was a strong opposition, particularly by civil society, against business-driven digital rights management with its strict approach towards copyright. For example if it is illegal to use music videos on YouTube to remix a new song. An alternative to digital rights management, was the Creative Commons movement, which has a "fair use" approach towards digital products. Digital content producers can decide themselves about their license and usage of their content.

Digital human rights

A game changer was social media, or the Read-Write Web, as some called it back in 2006. Up to this point the Internet was, with the exception of email and chats, largely a passive medium to  read website content. Finally, every Internet user could publish content online. At that time the Association for Progressive Communication developed a first draft for digital human rights with their Internet Rights Charter, that aimed to widen the scope of digital rights:

  • Internet access for all
  • Freedom of expression and association
  • Access to knowledge
  • Shared learning and creation – free and open source software and technology development
  • Privacy, surveillance and encryption
  • Governance of the internet
  • Awareness, protection and realisation of rights

The charter shows how the scope of digital rights was adjusted to the growing activities in the Internet. Throughout the years, a growing part of private and work life has migrated online. Three years later a similar approach was undertaken by the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition (IRPC). The "charter of human rights and principles for the internet" focused on similar rights:

  • Universality and Equality
  • Rights and Social Justice
  • Accessibility
  • Expression and Association
  • Privacy and Data Protection
  • Life, Liberty and Security
  • Diversity
  • Network Equality
  • Standards and Regulation
  • Governance

These proposals for digital human rights were early contributions to what nowadays is at the heart of the “Future of the Internet” debate. Freedom of speech has become a dominating topic as the Internet is not free in over 25 countries according Freedom House International. Privacy has become central since the NSA scandal. Internet accessibility is critical when a large part of private and work life depends on it.

Until this day there are no global digital human rights. The reasons are multifold. First of all there are existing human rights, and why should there be additional ones for the digital space? The United Nations Human Rights Council has reached a consensus in 2012 "that the human rights people enjoy offline, also apply online". In the following years the United Nations Human Rights Council initiated further resolutions e.g for privacy and the protection of children online. The question here is if the UN is underestimating the great difference between online and offline or if the existing human rights sufficiently cover all activities in the Internet? An important role for digital human rights plays the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

Applying laws and ensuring rights in the day-to-day usage of the Internet resides within countries until this day, although internet users’ activity is surely not bound to country borders. My taxi company might be from New York (Uber), the movie platform (Netflix) from California and my music stream from Stockholm (Spotify). My data is often distributed across many countries.

There are various challenges to applying laws, and governments react in two ways: (1) applying existing law to the Internet or (2) defining new laws to regulate the Internet. Let's look at two examples to see why both approaches are challenging. Take for example the article 10 from the German constitution: "Privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications". That article was written in 1949, when the postal service handled the complete delivery of letters. This right protects citizens and their letters from not being opened. As email has largely replaced letters this protection is not anymore given. Without encryption, emails are like postcards, and internet service providers and email providers can read the content.

A second government approach is to define digital laws that better fit the specific circumstances. One controversial law in Germany is the "Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz" - the act to improve enforcement of the law in social networks, which shall contain the spread of illegal content (e.g. hate speech). The sheer amount of social media content makes it impossible for law enforcement authorities to monitor the web. Through the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, social network platforms are now responsible for removing illegal content within 24 hours. Social network providers need to define for themselves which content is illegal. Many experts criticize that this law has solved little and might even lead to wrongful censorship by social network providers.

The past 20 years of digital rights history shows how the scope of digital rights has widened. Up to to this day governments struggle to apply laws to the borderless Internet. The European General Data Protection Regulation is one of the few exceptions. The Internet develops and transforms quickly, new business models appear daily and new services offer opportunities never possible before. With the speed things are happening, lawmakers are far behind this dynamic. Some countries, such as China, have chosen to control the Internet through mass surveillance, but that undermines the great ideas behind digital human rights.