We need to make human rights popular again, says Lara Bianchi

I was recently in Brussels for a conference on digital rights on the very day that Theresa May signed the letter that triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Yet, rather strangely, no one seemed particularly concerned by this landmark moment. Instead, with President Trump grabbing all media headlines, Brexit seemed to those present just a rather unfortunate matter that somehow needed resolving.

Instead, what was concerning minds at the RightsCon conference was how, in the light of Trump’s election, the EU was now arguably in a much stronger position to impact the human rights agenda. Indeed I believe that both Brexit and Trump will impact on the protection of human rights. And both academics and activists have probably failed to sell ordinary people the relevance of such rights. We need to find a way to make human rights popular again.

Human rights in the digital age

RightsCon is organised by US advocacy group AccessNow which brings together more than 1,400 activists, government officials, companies and academics. A year ago I went to New York to meet the group and was struck by how their office seemed full of very cool tech geeks who also just happened to be human rights defenders. They offered us tap water in tea mugs as we brainstormed the complexity of dealing with human rights in the digital age.

Human rights are affected by technology in two different ways. Firstly, technology can be used as a tool to protect and respect ‘offline’ human rights, and secondly it can be the means to exercise online rights. The application of technology can have enormous positive and negative impacts on rights holders. And this is where public and private actors need to engage in shaping a governance which benefits the protection and respect of fundamental rights.

Research questions

My aim at RightsCon was to help better define research questions on how telecommunications and internet companies are influencing the fulfilment of fundamental rights through the digital world.

To what extent can big corporations actually protect – or threaten – users from censorship, online harassment and privacy breaches? How can the business community stimulate development and democracy through internet connectivity and social media? And what is the link between public institutions and private actors in conveying online rights into offline rights?

What was clear from the conference was the sheer variety of discourse on online fundamental rights. This can range from the right to privacy, the freedom of expression, the right to be forgotten, the right to be connected and the empowerment of local communities, the right to compute, and the significance of digital literacy for diversity empowerment.

It is fascinating how some of these rights can be complementary as well as partially incompatible. The balance among online fundamental rights is a combination of culture and governance that varies from country to country. Which then begs the question as to whether we can effectively consider these rights ‘universal’.

Transformative impact

Looking at technology as a tool to implement offline fundamental rights, the potential for transformative impacts are embryonic. For instance, we know that audits do not work for preventing modern-day slavery in supply chains.

What if big corporations could start to use technological solutions for spotting human trafficking and slavery conditions within suppliers? Technology cannot per se address the root causes of slavery, but it can help alleviate them through anonymous feedback from workers, or by using direct digital recruitment. Technology could also help big corporations be proactive in the management of their supply chains, going well beyond the first couple of tiers in carrying out risk assessment and control.

Mass surveillance

Finally, another compelling theme that came out of the conference was around mass surveillance and the interference with privacy. The impression at the moment is that policymakers are rushing through new legislation that undermines our entire democratic system in response to a climate of fear, with a disproportional impact on minority communities through surveillance, interception and data collection. So, another strong message is that we shouldn’t give up our rights on terrorism and security.

Lara Bianchi is a research associate and coordinator at the Business and Human Rights Catalyst at Alliance MBS

www.mbs.ac.uk/bhr