Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
3-4 December 2020
Digital technology is changing our world and our lives in unparalleled speed and scale.
To ensure this change is for the better – and for all – the digital age must be rooted on human rights.
So far, the digital transformation has not been working
To fully harness its benefits for all, we must urgently address the crises unfolding before our eyes:
First, a privacy crisis -- a growing concern over the use or misuse of personal data, and its impacts on individuals, societies and democracies.
The scale in which companies and States are storing information is almost unimaginable, often without proper safeguards. This practice undermines fundamental privacy protections, enabling abuses such as targeted disinformation campaigns, data-driven discrimination, as I have just mentioned, and pervasive surveillance.
Which leads us to my second point: a
civic space crisis. In the connected parts of the world, social media has become the public square. But for many people -- especially human rights defenders, journalists, women and dissenters -- the meeting place is dangerous, filled with attacks and harassment and closely monitored and censored by State authorities. Racial and gender-based discrimination often exacerbate the threat.
Lastly, the inequality,
discrimination and exclusion crisis exposed by COVID-19 is mirrored online. Within and between countries.
digital global divide is
Shutdowns are affecting rights, democratic processes, and economies.
In addition, discrimination is often built into AI systems being used in environments such as criminal justice, health, welfare and migration.
These crises are transforming social, economic and political relations. Democracy and governance challenges are not easily overcome. And, yet, we have to.
And it is unquestionable that any efforts to address these crises must be human rights-based and designed to
strengthen democracy and the rule of law. We need to address the growing power of digital companies in ways that do not facilitate overreach and abuse by States.
Take the example of social media. We are aware that the rapid expansion of gigantic platforms has implications for democracy. Even though platforms have attempted to improve content moderation, there are still serious concerns about many of their practices.
We need to find a way to include checks and balances to these companies' growing role in shaping the digital world – and, consequently, influencing the offline world as well. At the same time, States should not have widespread control over people's freedom of speech.
We need to be extremely careful, especially about how we tackle online content governance. Badly developed regulation could consolidate deeply undemocratic and discriminatory approaches that control narratives and feed oppression.
Recent legislative and regulatory efforts seem to be going towards more powers with fewer checks -- placing substantial responsibility with companies, with little transparency and an emphasis on encouraging takedowns, rather than protecting lawful speech.
It is time we reverse this trend.
To tackle the crises I mentioned, we need rules that protect and promote human rights. Rules that enhance and demand transparency and accountability of decision-making – both from companies and States.
For that, we need open and transparent discussions on how to regulate speech online, how data is protected and how we prevent artificial intelligence from pushing the disadvantaged further behind.
Only a concerted multi-stakeholder dialogue, framed by human rights, will lead us to a sustainable way forward.