The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America afforded “certain unalienable Rights” to every human being and has been the foundation for the phenomenal growth of one of the most powerful nations in the world. “Rights” is certainly the most important term in the declaration, as proven by the capital letter that is used in its start in the most significant statement of the Declaration. It is the fundamental basis of life, liberty and happiness, not just in conventional physical existence as we know it, but also in the all-encompassing digital era that has changed the face of existence within a few decades.
The importance of “Rights” in the digital domain cannot be overstated. Digital Rights are human rights in the digital era, which enable access, use, creation, and dissemination of information through digital tools in all walks of life. In a way, Digital Rights are extensions of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes rights to expression and privacy (as contradictory as they may be) among others, into the context of digital domains. Indeed, Internet access was declared in 2011 by the UN, to be a human right, because of its inextricable ties to freedom of expression and of opinion.
Despite being a basic human right, Right to expression is perhaps the most challenging right in the digital domain; while it promises indiscriminate freedom of thought-sharing by individuals, it also leaves the onus of censorship and surveillance on corporations and states. A balance between the freedom to express and rights to dignity and privacy is not only subjective, but also ambiguous due to the contextual nature of individual expression. The purview of individual expression is a spectrum and it certainly is impractical to have an objective boundary, and even if there could be one, who should bell the cat? Different nations have developed their own laws and rules for the digital arena, but the spread of the tools across political and geographic boundaries challenges the implementation of such rules. A further complication in balancing freedom of expression with other rights, including freedom of privacy and dignity, is the fast paced and changing nature of technologies and the need for adaptive and evolving regulatory frameworks.
Many nations have, independently and in coalition, established charters and directives to uphold digital rights across all nations. The fundamental and common thread that runs across these various charters is the right to avail of the Internet and digital communication aids. The World Summit of Information Society convened by the United Nations, in Geneva and Tunis in the first decade of the century, attempted to bridge the digital divide between nations by enabling Internet access in the developing world.
As early as the 1990s, an international network of oganizations, called “Association for Progressive Communications” (APC) was chartered to provide technology and Internet enabled communication infrastructure, to groups and individuals to work for peace, human rights, protection of the environment, and sustainability. Today, the APC has 51 organizational members and 30 individual members from 75 countries. APC groups digital rights into the following themes:
- 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
Interestingly, alongside the quest for universal directives for digital rights, there has been an increasing trend of partition and segmentation. Some of the most powerful countries of the world have chosen to isolate themselves behind firewalls, keeping their distance from digital platforms shared by other nations. While such countries have their own reasons for the isolation, it adds to the complication of developing a common digital rights platform for the world.
Many international digital rights governance experts and groups have been seeking to formally include digital rights into UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). However, such inclusion requires global conversation, which includes representatives of nations with the firewall. The irony of a national right to have a firewall itself is supported by the human rights directive, which causes an impasse in the situation.
A dialogue among all stakeholders – governments, digital communities etc. –must work towards defining world-wide approaches and expectations. Some key aspects could include:
- Are there ways for governments and stakeholders ot work together to define functionalities and standards that enable legitimate law enforcement activities in the digital domain?
- How can governments work together to fit digital rights into common human rights and enable law enforcement online to protect human rights without infringing on them?
- How can stakeholders enhance understanding and sophistication that exists in governments all over the world in order to maximize the human rights benefits of the digital domain?
An international consensus on digital rights is particularly important in this era because digitization has produced a globally interdependent society that relies critically on an unimpeded flow of information. Thus, no single country can effectively address matters of consequence to the world on its own. The delocalized and global communications system has given rise to a global seat for ideas that answer some of the biggest questions facing the world as a whole; questions that cannot be answered and addressed by a single nation. The vox populi is louder than ever now, and cannot be discounted in the happenings of the world, and the only way to integrate the populi into world governance is by chartering a common directive of digital rights.
The path is certainly not easy. The chartering of the Declaration of Independence of USA exactly 241 years ago was neither easy nor quick, but the outcomes have stood the test of time. The development of a common forum for digital rights will take its time, but its effects would, like such endeavors always have in history, shape a better and productive digital world for centuries ahead.