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Web Summit - Human Rights in the Digital Era

Opening statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Lisbon, 2-4 December

I am pleased to participate in this Web Summit and highlight the importance of human rights in the digital era.

With each passing day, our lives and our world grow increasingly digitalized.

For billions of people, COVID-19 has further accelerated this shift: our jobs, our children's education and our interaction with friends are happening online.

At the same time, half of the world is still not connected to the Internet. Bridging the digital divide couldn't be timelier.

On one hand, the pandemic and our increasing dependence on digital technology have exacerbated many existing inequalities and human rights challenges. Online and offline.

On the other, we see digital tech offering enormous promise and possibilities to advance societies and address the pandemic, by accelerating the development of vaccines and enhancing contact tracing, for example.

We must harness the benefits of digital technologies for all, while mitigating their risks.

In that regard, allow me to raise three points:

First, human rights can help us to navigate what often seem to be overwhelming – the rapidly evolving challenges of the digital world. They are the tools to ensure that tech serves, rather than harms humanity.

Human rights laws and principles should guide the tech sector, governments and all of us through uncertain times and new challenges, including those related to COVID-19. For that, we need much more awareness-raising and advocacy.

Relatedly, consider our right to privacy. We are all concerned about what tech companies and governments might be doing with our personal data – and the impacts it may have in individuals, societies and democracies. At the same time, we have seen technology assisting in tracing individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and, therefore, protect our health.

How do we ensure that these same technologies will not result in our individual data being sold or misused -- or to lead us down a slippery slope to surveillance states? Applying human rights principles to both the design of such apps and the regulations on their use can allow them to serve public health interests, while protecting our individual rights.

And lastly: free speech. The Internet has been home to grave challenges such as incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence and widespread misinformation, including related to related to COVID-19. How do we tackle these challenges while protecting free speech and dissenting voices from being suppressed?

Again, international human rights law and universal principles have to guide us and serve as the foundation for the way forward. The United Nations Human Rights Office is actively engaged with the private sector, governments, and civil society to develop such guidance.

And we look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you.

Thank you.