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22nd EU NGO Human Rights Forum - The Impact of New Technologies on Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

9-10 December 2020

Colleagues, Friends,

It is a pleasure to join you today, on the eve of Human Rights Day.

New technologies are changing our world in unparalleled speed and scale, with huge impacts on human lives and rights.

For billions of people, COVID-19 has further accelerated this digital shift: our jobs, our children’s education and our interaction with friends have all moved online.

The benefits of the digital revolution are unquestionable. It has made it possible for us to meet today. It has been helping us to address the pandemic, for example, by accelerating the development of vaccines. And just a few days ago, we launched, together with Berkeley’s Human Rights Centre, the first international protocol on the use of digital information as evidence of human rights violations.

For billions of people, digital technologies touch upon more and more of their social interactions. And they have truly revolutionised civic space.

Previously excluded voices were heard for the first time; many discovered they are not alone.

I often wonder, as I am sure you do: how would human rights defenders disseminate their messages without the internet? How would movement leaders mobilise others to join their cause? Can journalists or media groups still operate only offline?

And, above all, is the digital revolution working for everyone?

Unfortunately, we know very well the answer to this last question.

The digital divide is still massive. At the same time, new risks keep emerging. Investments in mass surveillance are being revealed; organized disinformation campaigns are disrupting elections. Harassment and censorship online silence millions.

In the connected parts of the world, the public square has moved online, especially through social media. It is impossible to move backwards.

So, the questions we are here to discuss are vital: how can one seize the full potential of new technologies? How can we ensure they benefit humanity, rather than harm it? How can we make sure the new “digitalized” square delivers on the promises of a truly pluralistic, inclusive and open space?

When considering the challenges and opportunities digital tools pose to civic space, there are two central human rights concerns to which we must pay attention.

First, the “digital public square” is not available to all

The inequality crisis exposed by COVID-19 is mirrored online. Around 47% of the world population remains offline - among them, being connected is even harder for women, people living in poverty in developing countries and those living in rural areas.

Moreover, shutdowns continue to disrupt elections and damage economies in some of the poorest regions. Last year alone, civil society reported that 1706 days of internet access were disrupted by 213 shutdowns across 33 countries.

In addition, even when the internet is accessible, discrimination remains palpable – we are much more likely to hear certain voices than others.

We need to be clear: technology is not neutral. Automated systems often work well for the privileged. But time and again, they have biases built in that hurt minorities. For example, hate speech detectors used by social media have been shown to display racial biases.

Second, online privacy and free expression are under threat.

The Internet is home to an endless amount of data, being stored in an almost unimaginable scale by companies and Governments alike, often without proper safeguards.

There is indeed a growing concern over the use or misuse of personal data, and the impacts on individuals, societies and democracies.

In addition, the online public square can also be very hostile, especially whenever political debates become extremely polarized. For many people -- especially dissenting voices, human rights defenders, journalists, and women -- the square is dangerous, filled with attacks and harassment and often monitored and censored by State authorities.

Colleagues,

The wave of enthusiasm with digital tools is understandable, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the huge civil society challenges they may be posing worldwide.

Responding to hate speech or other online hostilities while defending free speech and protecting ourselves from surveillance are legitimate and pressing concerns.

In that sense, we see a renewed determination by States to respond with new regulation or adapted laws and policies as well as growing pressure on private companies to self-regulate.

This is not unusual. Every time technologies emerge, societies work to design new regulations around them.

But we need to be careful. Regulating online spaces, online content governance – and online speech -- is extremely challenging and complex.

Rules over communications create a wide range of opportunities for Government abuse. Badly developed regulation can consolidate deeply undemocratic and discriminatory approaches that lead to censorship and feed oppression. States should not have widespread control over people’s freedom of speech.

At the same time, leaving these challenges for private companies to solve is also not the answer. The huge concentration of power in the hands of gigantic social media platforms has troubling implications. Even though platforms have attempted to improve content moderation, there are still serious concerns about many of their practices, which, in some cases, may undermine pluralism and reinforce inequality and discrimination. As we know, in worst cases, the limited attention paid by platforms to political tensions in certain countries may have facilitated the use of these tools to incite violence.

Legislators discussing how to regulate social media platforms should consider these fundamental challenges.

This debate over legislation will be critical for our overall goal to make the digital space work for everyone, as I noted in my letter responding to the ongoing European Union consultation on the Digital Service Act.

Regulatory efforts in the European Union can promote important advances. The General Data Protection Regulation, for example, was followed by other relevant data protection efforts in other regions. On the other hand, we know that instruments trying to deal with hate speech in certain European countries placed substantial responsibilities and legal liabilities with companies with little transparency and encouraging takedowns rather than protecting lawful speech. They were also quickly replicated in other countries with lower rule of law and democracy guarantees.

Civil society and human rights actors have a key role in this historical process worldwide. To move in the right direction, I believe there are three steps we should take:

  1. Put the dignity of people at the centre. In all discussions regarding regulation, the priorities should be clear: safeguarding everyone’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression, as well as ensuring non-discrimination and promoting public participation. The stepping-stones to get there are transparency and accountability.
  2. Build coalitions across constituencies. Civil society will have more influence on the discussion, if the different segments come together in dialogue and action. Our discussions on online concerns are too often fragmented. Solutions to challenges faced by minorities, women or children, for example, are often debated separately, even if the resulting decisions on privacy or expression will ultimately, and always, affect everyone.
  3. Which leads me to my third point. We need these conversations to be truly inclusive. Online regulation will never be effective or sustainable if devised behind closed doors, in company or Government offices. Bringing different voices to the table is essential. And more: debates on the future of the digital space must be global. Far too often, only civil society and companies in developed countries are heard, without attention to the voices of the Global South.

Let us not forget that all rights are at stake here -- the accessibility to digital spaces and the ways in which these spaces are managed deeply impact on civil and political rights, but are also crucial for economic and social rights – as COVID vividly illustrates at the moment.

Dear colleagues and friends,

For the digital public square to be as open, democratic and pluralistic as we all hope – and need – it to be, all roads leading to it must be designed by proper democratic debates and built with active contributions from all.

In other words, to ensure that the changes brought by the digital revolution are for the better – and for all – this digital age must be rooted in human rights.

Thank you for your efforts in this regard.