Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Good afternoon to all. A warm thank you to the Graduate Institute and Special Rapporteur Irene Kahn for the invitation to participate in an event focused on a topic that has far-reaching effects for all of us.
There can be no doubt that digital technologies have thrust our world forward towards unprecedented human progress.
Yet the digital age has also brought with it immense new challenges in protecting human rights and democracy.
We don’t have to look far to see indicators of regression.
Online hate speech and disinformation are circulating at an accelerated pace. Journalists, politicians and human rights defenders face constant surveillance and are subject to frequent online attacks. Pegasus spyware is reportedly being used in 45 countries, often in total secrecy and outside of any legal framework.
Responding to these concerns is extremely challenging, as regulating communications always creates risks for the protection of freedom of expression. To give you some figures: in the last two years alone, my Office has recorded over 60 countries which have either adopted or are considering new laws on social media. Many of these regulations are problematic, imposing restrictions that overreach and undermine fundamental rights.
Internet and media shutdowns around the world, including in Europe, are also on the rise.
As more countries follow suit with such measures, these disturbing trends have ramifications for everyone.
Safeguarding human rights and democratic space in the digital age has become more crucial than ever. My Office has identified three key elements that are essential to ensure progress in this direction.
First, protecting our right to participate is central to the protection of democracy. Civil society plays a key role here – it must be meaningfully engaged in the development of policies, regulation and other measures relating to digital technologies and the online space. Journalists and civil society actors must have open and secure access to online spaces, free from surveillance and censorship. States and online companies have a responsibility to ensure this and make sure we have recourse when threats arise.
Secondly, the right to freedom of expression must be preserved online as well as offline, and must go hand-in-hand with addressing online hate speech and disinformation. While social media provides unique opportunities for connecting with others and mobilizing public debate, we are aware of companies’ lack of effectiveness responding to users’ concerns, their opaqueness and troubling market dominance, as well as of governments’ failures to put in place rights-respecting regulation of this space.
Crucially, any measures taken by companies and States to regulate speech must respond to the three-part test based on the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.
My Office is closely following the intensive discussions in the European Union on the Digital Services Act, and the recent agreement on the Digital Markets Act. These are historic opportunities to ensure attempts to regulate online spaces are firmly framed by human rights norms, and we welcome the focus on transparency and accountability the regulations reflect.
The free flow of information is particularly vital in conflict situations such as the current war in Ukraine. Keeping the communications infrastructure operational and accessible to all, allowing the media to perform their work safely is particularly important. At the same time, widespread censorship and wholesale blocking of communication channels can be very counter-productive, increasing the exposure of people to propaganda.
Neither blunt laws or tools that curtail expression, nor internet shutdowns are the answer.
Finally, we need to urgently address our right to privacy in the digital realm. Intrusive measures by States and businesses enable surveillance that feeds analysis, prediction and even manipulation of our behaviour, at times to the detriment of free, fair elections and democratic processes.
Recent revelations about global abuses of spyware, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, dissidents, opposition politicians, and diplomats are in flagrant violation of the right to privacy.
I emphasise that these abuses must stop, and I again call for a moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology until human rights protections are in place.
The ongoing threat to the right to privacy plays out heavily on social media. Encryption and anonymity tools can counter this threat and allow users to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression more safely. In parallel, national laws should be developed to ensure strong data protection, in line with human rights standards.
States and companies have responsibilities to uphold human rights, including in the online sphere, and we need to hold them accountable.
Functional democratic processes require a free flow of information. Whether during elections, conflict or other complex emergencies, keeping free, pluralistic, independent information accessible to all, and allowing journalists and human rights defenders to perform their work, is paramount to the protection of human rights.
Avoiding catastrophic setbacks for human rights and democracy in the digital sphere will take sustained and productive action. Let’s ensure we are taking those steps and advancing towards a world where we are protected from the dangers of attacks online, and where freedom of expression and the right to participate are unhindered for all.