When on social media, we want to be informed and, even more often, entertained. We love the seemingly free access, functions, and borderless connectivity. We may even be aware of the price we pay by giving away our data – and some of us may say that is a bargain for all the content and fun functions that they serve us just as we like it. However, we think less often about the platforms as powerful public arenas that can impact our mental health, promote violence against societal groups, make or break elections, or fuel wars.
The digital era has brought about the centrality of digital platforms in supporting or violating basic global principles on individuals’ rights. From that perspective, weare citizens. Our actions come with responsibilities and are also connected to basic human rights. To date, there is not one legal stipulation about our rights as global digital citizens – but many stakeholders are involved in thinking about how to define and protect those rights. This chapter outlines the ways in which digital platforms, the United Nations, the European Union, and civil society understand and protect our digital rights.
Human Rights in the Digital Era
Today, platforms and other technology companies impact such a great part of our lives, and our societies, that they are also key players in realising or restricting our basic rights. Internet access gives us a gateway to unlimited content but platforms also act as gatekeepers for the kind of information Google or TikTok recommend to us. We get free services in exchange for our data – but often we don’t know how it is used and how it affects our privacy. We get to express ourselves easily and freely; yet we also expose ourselves to plenty of false information, manipulation, and hate speech. As the report by the United Nations Secretary-General on digital cooperation notes, digital technologies do not only help to advocate, defend and exercise rights, but they are also used to suppress, limit, and violate human rights (1).
The question is not only about war censorship or internet shutdowns that may happen far away from our daily lives. In fact, we know little about how our rights are respected as users of global digital platforms. The organization Ranking Digital Rights monitors what big platforms and telcos around the world let us know about our rights. Its Big Tech Scorecard ranks corporations in terms of how they let us know about their internal rules and practices (governance), how they address our privacy, and how they protect our freedom of expression. Regrettably, these giants from Amazon and Alibaba to Twitter and Yandex keep us very much in the dark. If one can find the information about their terms of service and users’ rights, they can be hard to understand and they often lack information about crucial questions, such as with whom they share our data, or whether they follow international human rights principles when developing their algorithms. And even if a company such as Meta has a human rights policy, it is practically impossible for individuals or independent organizations to monitor its implementation. (2)
How the UN and EU approach our rights
Year on year, the UN has become more and more concerned about the impact of digitalization in our world. Many issues that we face in the digital era are already included in the most well known and most global guide to our rights: the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. (3) For example, Article 12 stipulates the right to privacy, and Article 19 addresses freedom of expression.
The UN seeks to address human rights and communication in general via its Human Rights Council (4), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (5), and specifically with its annual meeting for nation-states, companies, scholars, and civil society, titled the Internet Governance Forum (6). Because of the power of private corporations from Google to TikTok, also the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (7) are used to stress the rights-based responsibilities of tech companies. While the UN does not create laws, it takes a stand on issues such as digital connectivity as a human right, (8) or ethical guidelines for Artificial Intelligence. (9)
The European Union is another significant, and pioneering, stakeholder in defining our digital rights. With its comprehensive plan for digitalisation of Europe by 2030, known as the Digital Compass (10), the EU is not only creating laws to support its digital economy but also to provide digital security and empower its citizens. The fundamental principles of the Compass are laid out in the European Democracy Action Plan, including the essential role of citizen rights and participation, as well as the work against disinformation. (11) In 2022, the EU proposed a European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles, the first citizen-centric and rights-based declaration by an international governmental organisation. The Declaration highlights inclusion, participation, users’ choices, safety, and sustainability in the digital environment. (12)
Civil Society: Freedom Fighters and Watchdogs
While the UN and the EU offer official principles, innumerable organizations are active internationally and locally in safeguarding our digital rights. Some, like Article 19, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch, are traditional international human rights freedom fighters. Today, these organisations see technology as a tool to hold power accountable but also point to problems brought by digitalisation, including the freedom of expression online. (13) Others, like AccessNow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) focus on digital rights in particular. (14)
Many other groups and organizations specialise in some aspect of our digital rights. For instance, MyData Global, a non-profit organisation originally founded in Finland, advocates for our individual rights to manage our own data. (15) Privacy International, in contrast, is concerned with state and commercial surveillance. (16) Some organizations, among them the JustNet Coalition, address the so-called digital divides and work globally for a more equitable internet. (17) Many organisations, including our independent EDMO/NORDIS fact-checkers, focus on ensuring trustworthy information and people’s capabilities in digital information literacy.
With a Little Help…
In the end, our rights are up to us. At this time, there is no digital constitution cementing our rights globally. Technology develops at such a fast speed that any detailed rights might become obsolete as soon as they are instituted.
The digital environment can enlighten, entertain and educate us. It can help us innovate, create, earn a living, connect with others, and make a difference. Because of its immense potential for positive change, we should take our rights and related responsibilities as digital citizens seriously. We can do so with support on several fronts:
- The UN sets the stage with basic principles and an international fora to discuss our rights.
- The EU offers support through various legislative initiatives, in particular with its recent Digital Services Act Package that aims to regulate the largest global platforms in particular. (18)
- Civil society organizations and groups, often the pioneers in addressing digital harms and problems, can keep us updated on developments in different aspects of digital rights.
- And, with DigComp 2.2, the EU also gives us a framework for understanding the kinds of digital civic skills we need: knowledge of digital information literacy, capabilities to communicate, collaborate and create content as well as solve problems in the digital environment; and the ability to protect our privacy.
(11) European Democracy Action Plan: Making EU democracies stronger. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2250
(12) European Democracy Action Plan: Making EU democracies stronger. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2250
(13) https://www.article19.org/issue/digital-rights/; https://www.hrw.org/topic/technology-and-rights ; https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net
(14) https://www.accessnow.org/; https://www.eff.org/
Minna Aslama Horowitz is a Docent at the University of Helsinki, a researcher at the Nordic Observatory for Digital Media and Information Disorder (NORDIS), a Fellow at St. John’s University, New York, and an Expert on Advocacy and Digital Rights at the Central European University, Vienna. She is also a member of the Think Tank of the Nordic Council of Ministers to address platformisation in the Nordics. Horowitz researches (public media) policies, digital rights, and media activism.
Artwork: Lumi Pönkä
Download the Digital Information Literacy Guide (PDF).