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Shaping digital technologies that empower people to build their lives

05 May 2023

A woman pausing to focus on a message on her phone while on a busy crosswalk, with motion blur as people move around her. © Getty Images

Throughout 2023, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Human Rights, through its Human Rights 75 Initiative, will place a spotlight on a range of human rights issues in need of concrete and urgent action from States and others. In May, we focus on the online and offline space people need to promote and protect their human rights and shape their futures.

When the World Wide Web was put on the public domain in April 1993, its inventor, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, hoped it would serve a dual purpose: to be a force for good and to be accessible to everyone, everywhere, without discrimination. Thirty years on, the world is witnessing a paradox.

On the one hand, new technologies have contributed to human progress by enabling countless people to access the internet - almost five billion people were online in 2022, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). ITU’s figures show a strong upward trend in terms of people’s ability to access information from around the world and learn about things previously out of reach (although many hundreds of millions of these users continue to struggle with expensive, often poor-quality access).

Digital technologies thus have expanded how people exercise almost all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – from freedom of thought, expression, association, assembly, even the right to privacy, as well as to education, health, work and social protection.

Younger generations are particularly present online. Children and young people connect in the digital environment natively, making these technologies an integral part of their lives. According to the ITU, one in three internet users is younger than 18, and 71 per cent of 15–24-year-olds are online, making children and young people the most connected age group worldwide.

One third of humanity offline

On the other hand, nearly 2.9 billion people, roughly one third of humanity, remain offline and thus are deprived of the many benefits of connectedness.

Who is left behind in terms of internet access reflects age-old patterns of discrimination, despite Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 9, which aim at universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries and closing the gender digital divide.

A woman living at a Protection of Civilian site (PoC) in Juba, South Sudan learns computer skills. More women and girls need to learn and create technology to help bridge the digital gender divide. © UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

A woman living at a Protection of Civilian site (PoC) in Juba, South Sudan learns computer skills. More women and girls need to learn and create technology to help bridge the digital gender divide. © UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

“Who is connecting and who is being left behind? How safe, open and stable is the digital environment? Much more needs to be done to connect the dots and be more deliberate about involving those living in poverty and in remote areas. It has become urgent to take a hard look at what the barriers are,” said Marcelo Daher, UN Human Rights officer focusing on civic space adding that Government ordered internet shutdowns also result in severe restrictions of rights and the freedom of expression.

In a 2020 report to the Human Rights Council, UN Human Rights highlighted that Governments, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, have frequently put in place measures that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to, or dissemination of, information online. These shutdowns come in a variety of forms, including throttling bandwidth to slow internet access, blocking specific apps such as social media or messaging services, and partially or completely shutting down access to the internet.

The report described how shutdowns limit communications when it is most needed – often during crises and emergencies, depriving people of the possibility to be in touch with their loves ones and allowing for human rights abuses to be committed.

“Internet shutdowns too often affect communities already at risk of exclusion and effectively deepening the digital divide,” Daher said.

Civic space restrictions, offline and online

Civic space is the environment that enables civil society to play a role in political, economic and social life. It allows individuals and groups to contribute to policy-making that affects their lives, including how it is implemented.

This civic space is essential for rights holders to engage on all types of rights. However, it is increasingly under pressure from repressive laws and increased restrictions on freedoms to express, participate, assemble and associate. Civil society actors, including human rights defenders and individuals who cooperate with the United Nations, are also facing a pushback, offline and online, across the world. In 2022, UN Human Rights reported on how spaces for participation and debate were affected by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

As debate and public participation increasingly is moving online, UN Human Rights has advocated for regulating the digital sphere in a way that benefits people’s future and upholds the promise of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration, which, 75 years ago, stated that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and also seeks to protect those who bring the Declaration to life, human rights defenders.

“Some hard questions need to be asked, given that much of the digital sphere is run by private companies and how States are interfering with online content directly and indirectly: Can we allow decisions about content and privacy to be discussed from a mainly economic-benefit perspective? How transparent and open are decision making processes about content moderation and data protection? How to ensure accountability?” Daher said.  “It is key to discuss, with the involvement of people from different communities around the globe, how to regulate and shape the digital space in a way that is good for people and not only respects their rights but helps them thrive.”

Participants editing content on women and LGBTI rights during an editathon organized by Wikimedia and UN Human Rights in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 2019. © OHCHR Photo

Participants editing content on women and LGBTI rights during an editathon organized by Wikimedia and UN Human Rights in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 2019. © OHCHR Photo

Regrettably, not all of Berners-Lee’s dreams haves come true. Digital technologies have been used to suppress, limit, and violate people’s rights, including those of human rights defenders. Numerous countries have enacted laws that have resulted in restricting their space for operating. Too often, legislation adopted to ostensibly deal with perceived online harms, such as cybercrime and the dissemination of hate speech or disinformation, have been weaponised to limit privacy and freedom online.

“Member States of the UN have stated many times that the rights that apply offline also apply online. But how to translate that maxim into regulation and practice, is not always straightforward,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. “People everywhere have the right to use the internet to access information and express their views”, he added, “and they should be able to do so safely, with their right to privacy, to non-discrimination, and to be heard respected, and have their views taken duly into account. Türk urged Governments and companies to take the steps required to ensure this happens, including developers of digital tools and platforms, and regulators of the tech industry.

UN Human Rights has observed, in parallel, that online threats and attacks are on the rise and serve as deterrents for people to make their voices heard. To ensure that people online can debate openly and exchange information and ideas every day, human rights defenders, journalists, and entire communities around the world are looking for effective ways to respond. UN Human Rights too has increased its efforts to ensure the internet fulfils its promise.

This is done by seeking to map more systematically the challenges human rights defenders and journalists face; connecting defenders with protection providers that can support victims of online attacks; developing civil society actors’ capacity to self-protect; and improving dialogue with online communications companies.

UN Human Rights’ regional office in Bangkok, Thailand, and the human rights component of the UN Assistance Missions to Iraq, have supported civil society efforts towards better self-protection, produced guidance and conducted awareness raising and training for different civil society audiences.

“Making online spaces safer requires empowering the voices that are most often targeted to defend themselves,” Daher pointed out, adding that effective protection, online as well as offline, requires collaborative networks that exchange experiences, tools and contacts, as challenges transform and expand and resources are always scarce.