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Internet Governance and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Part 8: Articles 22-25

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Digital Age. Articles 22-25: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Co-authored by Prof Sam Lanfranco and Klaus Stoll.1

This article is Part 8 of the series of articles discussing human rights in the digital age and published here on CircleID.2 When we commenced this analysis of the UDHR, and the relevance of its principles to our rights and duties within the Internet ecosystem, we committed ourselves to work through the UDHR one Article at a time. With this Part 8 we are four-fifths through that task. It has become clear that the UDHR provides guiding principles for embedding our digital rights in Internet Governance and guiding the social norms that should accompany those rights. The challenge becomes what form of governance is called for and how should it operate. We will pay more attention to that challenge as we wrap up this series and as part of our plans to revise this material for publication as a book.

In this essay, we discuss Articles 22-25.3 After focusing on civil and political rights in the earlier Articles, the drafters of the UDHR turn to social security, defined as the economic, social, and cultural rights necessary for personal dignity and the free of development of one’s personality.

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

This social security refers not to a government program (as in the United States), not an abstract concept. It refers to the faced reality where the person has equitable access to work, education, culture, and rest and leisure, to achieve an adequate level of wellbeing. Article 22 gives life dignity and assures a foundation for self-development and expression. This social security cannot be seen apart from other human rights as they are intricately connected. The right to work with dignity cannot be implemented without freedom of speech and assembly. Education is essential for work, income, and wellbeing, and it is also foundational for understanding and exercising our civil and political rights.

The individual is the direct beneficiary of social security, but its implementation is a collective responsibility. It requires policies supporting a safety net to protect the wellbeing of those who are disadvantaged or marginalized and are at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. The Internet ecosystem is an important place where eGovernance, eAssembly, and other digital technologies can strengthen, or weaken, the ability to connect, interact, and engage in self-betterment as an engaged digital citizen and stakeholder in governance and social processes.

The digital opportunities and innovations available to improve the social security context seem endless, but that does not mean that they are available and available to all. Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, observes that:

“The US as one of the world’s richest and technological development and innovative country but with the biggest and growing gap between rich and poor. ...neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.4

The dominant ideology of some countries sees the government with a strong role in protecting social security. Other countries leave the provision of social security, as defined here, to the individual and market forces.

Once Internet Governance has become mature in its role as a venue for global expressions of “the will of [all] the people”, stakeholder engagement will require policies around the rights and duties of digital citizenship, nation by nation. Given the unique nature of the Internet ecosystem, there will be a need to address the notion of digital citizenship at the global level. The principles of the UDHR will be used to guide structural changes in Internet Governance such that our behavior in the Internet ecosystem will help society achieve a more human-centered approach to social security.

The drafters of the UDHR envisaged collaborative policymaking through international co-operation. The most significant ongoing initiative in support of social security is the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs express a “...universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.”5 The SDG’s, as with other UN declarations, are aspirational and non-binding. Properly used the Internet ecosystem could build an engaged citizenry, motivated political processes, and solidarity between nations and within global communities. Achieving the SDGs will also require a massive, multifaceted, and targeted use of digital technologies. Currently, the digital technology landscape is mainly shaped by digital business practices with a narrow focus on enterprise profits, revenue, and growth. It is an open question to ask what digital business and eGovernance practices are required, which should be curtailed, and to what extent current digital practices and behavioral, social norms support or violate the principles of the UDHR. To what extent do they support, or are detrimental, to the achievement of the SDGs and social security?

Retooling digital technologies to provide direct social security to all requires the same processes that were described when we discussed trust-based business models in the context of Article 21. It can be further argued that appropriate processes for engagement, governance, policy, and social norms are essential for the preservation of democracy itself.6

The notions of individual and community social security gain new significance in these times of Covid-19. The pandemic is reminding us that while we may individually isolate, we cannot face the pandemic alone. The Internet ecosystem and its ability to build structures and operate processes across time and space, open a collaborative space to help face the challenges of Covid-19, but it also opens space for false news, bad science, and conspiracy theories. The existence of “false news,” conspiracy theories, and internet scams opens our eyes to the fact that wellbeing and social service need supportive government relief programs and strategies to build policies, but we also need education and social norms to deal with bad processes and bad actors in the Internet ecosystem.

Corvid-19 shows the importance of digital access but also shows the consequences of unequal access and errant social norms in the Internet ecosystem, especially when connectivity, costs, and digital skills impede access. We need interconnectivity, we need openness, we need Internet for all, and we need digital integrity as we exercise digital rights that reflect fundamental universal human values.

This kind of responsibility is also needed in a new Internet Governance system where the individual, governments and private sector act responsibly to develop acceptable digital policies, digital practices, and digital norms of behavior.

Labor Rights and Labor Markets

Article 23 translates the general objectives of Article 22 onto the labor market.

Article 23: (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.

Article 23: (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

Article 23: (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

Article 23: (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The Internet ecosystem and its digital technologies are fundamentally changing both the nature of work and the nature of job markets. It is important to consider the principles of the UDHR, and the SDGs, for examining and evaluating those changes.

The right to work is not in question. We work to receive just remuneration so we can live, hopefully in an existence worthy of human dignity. Through our work, we (hopefully) contribute to the common good and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Robots, Work and Human Rights

At issue here is the need to identify and evaluate the human rights impacts of dislocations from digital technologies as they impact work life. While industrial robots may free us from repetitious and dangerous labor, does that mean that we lose our livelihood to a machine? Where one’s skills and employment used to secure near life-long employment, frequently with the same employer, now, with the ever-quickening pace of innovation, skills have a short shelf life and a shortening in-use half-life. work life can be chaotic and subject to abuse.

Education is becoming continuous and necessary for both job retention and job satisfaction. Human Rights are also about equity. How does the division of the responsibility for funding education between society, the individual and the employer impact on work life and wellbeing? How does the Internet enhance or stream the benefits and obstacles to education?

The Internet has driven the growth of the gig-work, where Internet apps (Uber, Lyft, etc.) leave workers in limbo between employee status with job benefits, and contractor status without job benefits. What are the rights of the “gig worker” regarding Article 23(4), the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of worker interests, and how are these rights protected?

The Internet facilitates the coordination of global production and supply lines. It also forces workers to compete globally under markedly different labor regimes that compromise the rights of workers under the principles of the UDHR. This also results in major differences in costs of production, producing major wage and income disparities.

As the Internet has aided the globalization of production and supply lines, it has disempowered national labor forces in the short run. How are the Article 23 rights of organization and protection of worker interests applied? What are the rights of digital assembly here, as set down in Article 20? These are questions and challenges that should only be addressed by people’s engagement in processes that shape legislation, regulation, and healthy social norms.

Artificial Intelligence, Work, and the Rights of Digital Me

Above we referenced how digitally controlled robots have manually replaced human labor in repetitive and dangerous work. We are at the doorstep of another significant disruption to work caused by computer-based Artificial Intelligence (AI). As with robots, AI ranges from small or Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) applications to big Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), a yet-to-be-achieved state where self-learning machines become “smarter than humans.”

In terms of Article 23, this raises deeper issues around the rights of workers. Robots were introduced to replace or complement human labor. The introduction of AI encompasses this but goes well beyond it. AI algorithms are also used to evaluate workers as candidates for employment, their performance as workers, their behavior as consumers, and, with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), to monitor every aspect of their personal life. The worker is in a situation where the tools and the algorithms monitor the worker as a worker, and where they monitor everyone all the time.

All of these processes, from hiring to monitoring, are highly “black box” with little or no transparency or consultation with respect to the processes, or the intended uses. The worker produces a “product,” and part of that product is data about a myriad of factors involving both the worker and the production process.

Just as there are negotiable issues around the division of effort between robots and workers, and between AI algorithms and workers, there are also what should be negotiable issues around access to, and the use of, the massive AI and Internet of Things (IoT) data stream that is generated by the worker and the work process. These workplace issues have a lot in common with the issues around access to personal data outside the workplace and the uses that business and governance put to one’s transactional, social media, and ambient personal data.

Under the guidance of the principles of the UDHR, what roles do humans play, and in what governance, management, and work structures, to ensure the principles and protections of Article 23? Most of us work for a living. How labor is employed and remunerated bears heavily on our individual and collective states of wellbeing.

There is a whole minefield of concerns here that go well beyond the focus of Article 23. Will work be fulfilling and expressive, or will we be transformed into mindless consumers, kept distracted by (AI-generated) mass media? Do these trends and tendencies risk creating concentrations of power and marginalization that threaten our notions and practices of democracy? How do we plan the trajectory of our lives and work on society’s trajectory as the Internet ecosystem is shaped to serve the wellbeing of all?

There are fundamental decisions to be made here, either by active stakeholder engagement or by default. How do we come to understand how these digital landscapes and processes impact on our broader notions of human rights and democratic forms of governance? How do we design digital governance strategies that both respect the principles in the UDRH and provide fertile ground for digital advancement and wellbeing for all?

These are areas where Internet governance (IG) comes into play and where a multitude of Internet related policy and social norm decisions are yet to be made.

This brings us full circle back to the issue of what are the rights and duties of one’s digital citizenship (here regarding employment)? How do we build governance and policy processes that respect our rights and duties? How do we incorporate those same principles into our social norms of behavior? Within those policies and social norms, how do we exercise the principles of the UDHR regarding our data in the data cloud? How do we impart those principles into the constellation of corporate digital business practices surrounding one’s digital presence in the Internet ecosystem? How these issues are addressed depends on the governance models we choose.

Access: The Problem and the Cure

The UDHR gives direction to stakeholders (workers, citizens) regarding engagement in Internet Governance. That direction needs to be operationalized in the structures of digital governance, in the rights and duties surrounding work, and into the codified rights and duties of digital citizenship.

As a specific example, online communities of workers replace Unions that have spent decades struggling to establish and protect workers’ rights. Will those achievements be undermined or even destroyed? How can a new “Union of Global Freelancers” organize and provide worker rights and protection as done so by the established unions do today? Unions do not have to change their mission and vision, but they must adapt their structures and processes to a new world of electronic work operating in a global context. Workers and their rights must become an integral part of Internet Governance decision-making. Digital workers, and work dependent on the Internet and its system of apps, require work and worker-related policies that protect labor, and if ignored, increased dependency on access and apps may result in what are effectively new forms of servitude.

In a world where the Internet has feed increased globalization in the provision of goods and services, how do we preserve life as “an existence worthy of human dignity”? Labor, including skilled labor, is much more expensive in New York than it is in Mumbai. How do the worker in New York and the worker in Mumbai contend with their mutual roles in global production? There is a tangle of national policies and global forces spanning trade, workers’ rights, and human dignity with the necessity to be confronted on a global scale.

Many of the challenges posed by the digital technologies that caused them will see those self-same technologies playing a crucial role in addressing them. While the new world of work can become a world with less discrimination and more equity, it can also go in the opposite direction. A famous early New Yorker cartoon of two dogs at a computer was captioned: “On the Internet, nobody knows that you are a dog.” This could reduce discrimination based on disabilities, gender, race, etc. However, like social media, doxing, false news, digital stalking, and the like demonstrate, access can be used for increased discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. Even access itself and required Internet skills can pose barriers and disrupt existing work.

Work in times of Covid-19

The role of the Internet in the context of work has gained significance during the Covid-19 pandemic. To varying degrees, the structure and process humans have built to operate in literal time and space have to adapt to operating in synchronous and asynchronous time across space. This allowed us to maintain many tasks and processes “at a distance” while reducing infection and transmission risks.

The economic and other costs have been high. Not every task allows working from home, not everybody is permitted to work from home, and home may be a less than suitable workspace (or educational space). This rapid transformation was precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It forced adjustments in work routines with little if any forethought. The pandemic’s massive lockdowns disrupted work and threatened both the economic and socio-psychological wellbeing of millions of workers and their families around the globe.

It is too early to say which emergency responses to work under Covid-19 will become part of the new fabric of work after the pandemic has passed. Looking back at the principles in Article 23(a), the right to work, free choice of employment and protection against unemployment have been seriously, if necessarily, abridged by pandemic emergency measures.

The effects of the rolling lockdowns on work, education, governance, communities, family, and social life were felt immediately. Families, companies, and governments had to invent emergency responses in their quest to survive. The effects on work and wellness are partially addressed by emergency pandemic financial and income relief. Work and family life adjustments during the pandemic have quickly become the temporary “new normal.” In terms of individual and community wellbeing, decisions have had to be made regarding tradeoffs between population health and economic factors. By the winter of 2021, the pandemic was so taxing hospital capacity in some settings that increasingly difficult treatment triage protocols (who to treat and who to let die) were being put into effect.

The bigger and enduring Article 23 issue is the right to “...just and favorable conditions of work…”. It is difficult to forecast how the digital work will be shaped in a post-pandemic “new normal,” but the already ongoing issues around the “gig economy” point to a period of labor relations stress, if not labor unrest. Strategies around the terms of digital work, and work influenced by digital forces, need to be anchored in the principles of Article 25 of the UDHR.

Rethinking Work

The disruptions caused by digital technologies is forcing us to update and rethink the concept of work. IG must acknowledge its role in the future of work and create the instruments and tools that ensure that Article 23 is respected to its fullest extent in digital spaces as well.

How can there be protection against unemployment and replacement in a global labor market with different circumstances? IG must ensure that within the Internet ecosystem, everybody is equality enabled and entitled to possibilities. One of the roles of Internet governance is, paradoxically, to concern itself with the impact of the Internet on non-digital work. Not all work can be migrated to a digital environment or be executed by digital means. The conditions and controls involved in digital work solutions might make it necessary to preserve areas of non-digital work (where there is a choice) to preserve “an existence worthy of human dignity”, to consciously not use digital helpers and opt for the plow and oxen rather than the self-driving and AI-controlled John Deer tractor.

What future role is there for the human? What will “work” mean in the future? Work means to fulfill a task. The task can be to shift a pile of stones, assemble a car or solve a logistical problem. Will big AI in the future create the machine that shifts the stones, assembles the car, and solves the logistical problem. Will the future role of humans be to live and create ways to freely fulfill and express themselves? Will the future be just mindless consumers kept entertained by AI-generated mass distractions (media/war)?

Are we on the way to create new governance models where the very few use digital means (AI) to control the masses, or does the machine take over, and one way or another, we end up under structured (but mindless?) dictatorship? Fundamental decisions governance structures and processes, across a wide range of human activities, including work, are yet to be made. That where the principles of the UDHR come in to give direction, and that is where IG governance comes in to give everybody a voice in the fundamental decisions of our lives.

As for work, one might think it better to toil and sweat shifting the piles of stone, just to keep a stake in what is going on, but that is a dead end. A quarter of a century after the adoption of the UDHR, hundreds of millions of workers around the globe still do not have the protection of the most basic of worker principles set down in the UDHR. For many, their work lives and livelihoods are being made more difficult because of an internet ecosystem to which they do not even have access. The only way forward is broader stakeholder engagement in the governance structures and processes that shape the context for wellbeing for all.

Article 24: The Right to Rest and Leisure

At first glance, it seems difficult to link UDHR Article 24 to the central themes of this series of essays, those being (a) the rights and duties of digital citizenship and (b) stakeholder engagement in the processes of governance, policymaking and policy implementation. The wording of Article 24 is as follows:

Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Following any act of discovery or invention, humans are apt to both underreact and overreact. Short-term reactions are opportunistic, of the moment, and tend to underestimate the long-term transformative impact of discoveries and inventions. The European discovery of chocolate in the 1600s prompted a craze where wealthy Sunday churchgoers required that their servants bring them hot chocolate mid-mass. After the ensuing six hundred years, until today, those who harvest the cocoa beans still have little or no access to the worker rights set down in the UDHR, and one of the ten richest women in the world derives her wealth from a chocolate-intensive candy empire.7

The work derived from digital technologies offers further complications and has no natural boundaries in terms of time and space. Work can be 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at all times and almost everywhere. Before digital technologies, the time we worked was subject to regulations and, for most work, followed the natural rhythms of day and night. With the industrial revolution and growing notions of the rights of persons, the child labor in late 19th Century mines was curtailed, and factor work increasingly came under a blend of legislation and bilateral union contracts designed to better reward and better protect workers.

Digital technologies have disrupted the prevailing work relations and conditions of the second half of the 20th Century. Work at a distance and the control of production at a distance have opened production and commerce to operate globally. The emergence of the gig economy has impacted a worker’s right to rest and leisure, reasonable limitation of working hours, and periodic holidays with pay.

Consider the taxi/ride/courier gig economy. The cost of entry is low, requiring access to a vehicle and a driver’s license. The remuneration is highly variable and depends on location and hours worked. Being legally viewed as a contractor and not an employee means no job benefits. Other elements of the gig economy, such as coding and design work, require necessary skills but operate with intense global competition and few if any job benefits beyond the contracted pay. Many of the elements of such work violate the principles of Article 24, and such work only exists because of the Internet ecosystem.

Yet again, we have seen the need for governance structures and processes to address these new work conditions. Human work is literal and takes place in literal time and space. Part of the solution to these challenges involves taking the same principles and legislative approaches that have been used to improve the literal work life and worker wellbeing and applying them to work in the digital age.

This may look like it is quite divorced from one of the themes of this series on the UDHR, that being the need for digital citizenship and the rights and duties of that digital citizenship. However, the global nature of the Internet has linked work across global time and space in ways that barely existed three decades ago. These global linkages and interdependencies complicated national strategies to deal with the conditions of work life. They will call for approaches involving digital citizenship in a multistakeholder and multilateral collaboration at a global level.

Covid-19 and the Right to Work, Rest and Leisure

The world is in a global pandemic, and it is useful to pause and look at the impact of the pandemic on work, rest, and leisure. The illness, death and disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting the conditions of work life in multiple ways. Lockdowns have put millions out of work, with isolation reducing their mobility. Lockdowns and isolation have moved millions of office workers to working remotely from home, frequently in less-than-ideal conditions. Essential work, especially in the health sector, has put millions of those who are employed in work conditions with serious personal risk. Governments, as they are able, are of necessity providing financial packages to mitigate some of the impacts on individual, family and business resilience and viability during the pandemic

The pandemic has also seen a forced march into the use of digital tools and the internet ecosystem for tasks from work to consumption and entertainment, tasks that previously operated mainly in literal time and space. It is too early to tell how much of this contingency-driven shift will be elements of the “new normal” after the pandemic. The lockdowns, the isolation, the risks, and the digital work are impacting on the physical and mental health of workers, including blurring the division between work, rest, and leisure.

About all that is clear is that the pandemic is likely to have long-lasting impacts on work, on individual, family and business futures, and likely leave a residue of mental health problems. Whatever the mechanisms of governance, policymaking, and stakeholder engagement, the impact of work on wellbeing, rest and leisure are likely to be on the agenda.

Well-being, Social Services and Special Care Entitlement

Article 25 embodies a trend in the overall progression of the Articles of the UDHR. It becomes more specific in terms of rights and entitlements regarding areas that are now embodied in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in the circumstances beyond his control.

Article 25: (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

At this point, the UDHR has shifted focus from political rights to social rights. Article 25 brings social rights together in ways that depend on the application of the political rights in earlier UDHR Articles. Accordingly, the goals of Article 25 should serve as the guide for policy and social norms that shape how the structures and processes of digital technologies impact on those goals. It is the task of policy and social norms to ensure that Internet governance and its engaged stakeholders shape an Internet ecosystem that operates with integrity and preserves the dignity of its stakeholders.

These four Articles (22-25) of the UDHR address the right to work, workers’ rights, and a more general set of goals related to wellbeing, goals that are now mirrored in the current UN Sustainable Development Goals. The mission of this exploration of the principles, goals and objectives in Articles of the UDHR is to understand what they tell us about the ways in which we can address the rights and duties of one’s digital residency/citizenship in the Internet ecosystem. The exploration and analysis are designed to help understand the importance of the notion of one’s digital citizenship as a guiding principle as we build the structures and processes of Internet Governance. A corollary effort is to suggest that, in the absence of a notion of digital citizenship, policies pursued to protect with welfare and wellbeing of persons from forces originating within the Internet ecosystem will be piecemeal, cumbersome to implement, and inadequate in scope and coverage.

There is an important difference between approaching the relationship between persons and the Internet ecosystem in terms of personal digital rights and duties, versus first confirming digital citizenship, then approaching the digital rights and duties of that digital citizenship. The first is more piecemeal and treats the Internet ecosystem as an almost alien place one might visit, as a traveler, needing certain protections and taking certain precautions. The second, where one is a resident, a digital citizen, makes the virtual as real as the literal, and is more like how literal human rights are offered protection under the principles of the UDHR. This difference has implications for the structure of Internet governance, for the scope and mechanisms of policymaking, and for the evolution of appropriate social norms for one’s presence/residency/citizenship in the Internet ecosystem. This series of essays in the UDHR will pay increased attention to that challenge as they deal with the last five Articles of the UDHR.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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