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Human Rights and the Digital Domain Primer - Part 1

Introduction, The digital Domain and Human Rights, Our digital Identity, Integrity and Dignity, Access, Rights and Duties — Co-authored by Prof. Sam Lanfranco, Klaus Stoll, Sarah Deutsch.

1.0 Introduction

The digital domain encompasses the different spaces and spheres we use to relate and interact with the people and things that surround us using digital technologies. The digital domain is not limited to the technologies itself, but it has an important ethical dimension that encompasses the values, principles and instruments that inform and govern it. Created by humans for humans, our beliefs, cultural backgrounds, and biases are reflected in the codes we write and the algorithms we create. The digital domain requires governance that is informed by the fundamental values that are universal to all of humanity: our fundamental human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, as the globally accepted standard, should serve us as the guiding light when it comes to striking the delicate balance between our rights and responsibilities on and off-line.

In reality, our human rights are constantly challenged by human creed. The challenge is particularly powerful as the business models of large sections of the digital economy that sustains the digital domain are based on the separation of rights from responsibilities and offer little or no incentives to extend human rights into the digital domain.

To create awareness and spark a broad discussion, the following primer tries to scope with broad brushstrokes the relationship between human rights and the digital domain.

1.1 The Digital Domain

(Chapter 2.1, “Scope of the digital Domain”, reproduced from TPRC50 Taylor Working Paper Hrts 8-1-22 1, Preserving Human Rights Across the Digital Domain, Richard D. Taylor, J.D., Ed.D)

As of this writing, there is no generally accepted single term or phrase which incorporates all aspects of the “Digital Domain.” There are multiple neologisms that capture aspects of it, such as:

  • Datasphere: “The notional environment in which digital data is stored; esp. the Internet viewed in this way.” (OED Online, 2022a)
  • Cybersphere: “The sphere or realm of information technology, now esp. the Internet.” (OED Online, 2022b)
  • Infosphere: “Information, considered as a dynamic environment in which people live; the sphere of human activity concerned with the collection and processing of information, esp. by computer.” (OED Online, 2022c)
  • Cyberspace: “The space of virtual reality; the notional environment within which
  • electronic communication (esp. via the Internet) occurs.” (OED Online, 2022d)
  • Metaverse: “A computer-generated environment within which users can interact with one another and their surroundings, a virtual world; (more generally) the notional
  • environment in which users of networked computers interact.” (OED Online, 2022e)

It includes tangible things, e.g., infrastructure, ICTs, the Internet and intangible ones, e.g., data stored and transmitted, programs, applications, platforms, content, algorithms, broadband, and their respective ecosystems. This paper adopts the term “Digital Domain” to represent the broadest scope of the field. Its boundaries are constantly emerging and evolving and can be vague at the margins. As a practical matter, at the heart of the Digital Domain are those technologies, applications and regulations which have become the focus of governmental policies as a key part of a global contest for leadership and dominance technically, economically, culturally and ideologically

1.2 The Digital Domain and Human Rights

Founded solely in the: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” our universal human rights are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Given the ability and importance of the digital domain as an instrument of humanity to bring about “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy the freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want” to safeguard its dignity as human beings, humanity must strive to fully extend its human rights into the digital domain. “Disregard and contempt for human rights” in the digital domain will result, as in the past,” in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

As long as the digital dividend in all its different expressions is paid out to only a few and not too many, the deeper the crisis caused by the suppression of human rights gets, and the stronger the counterreaction by those suppressed will be.

To ensure that individuals “not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression,” it is “essential” that human rights in the digital domain “should be protected by the rule of law”.

Our human rights are constantly challenged by human creed that seeks to disrespect the fact that: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” (All quotes UDHR)

2. Our Digital Identity

2.1 Digital Identity

Our physical identity is something that is gifted to us by our birth. Our digital identity is created by digital technologies. In parallel to our physical identity, with very few exceptions, all people are simultaneously acquiring multiple digital identities. They consist of digital data constructs (digital identities) that are linked to our unique literal being as a human. Often attached to these digital identities are human or machine-imposed value judgments affecting one’s real-world reputation, identity information, credit or risk worthiness, and other indicia affecting basic human welfare.

Technology builds our digital identities from data assembled from a myriad of sources, even if we may never be exposed to or ever use digital technologies. The pervasive collection and processing of data nevertheless gives birth to our digital identities. Multiple versions of one’s digital identity can be constructed by others through data assembly and artificial intelligence algorithms, which are contrary to the principles of the UDHR. The main question here is: Who has the right to a person’s digital data and its uses? How do the principles of the UDHR dictate the digital rights and duties of the person and others? The UDHR dictates that everyone has the right to liberty and security in their physical identity. How does this extend to digital identities?

When we talk about the technical aspects of digital identities, we often seem to forget that every virtual identity relates to and deeply affects the lives of very real people. Digital identities have the same fundamental human needs as the real person they are associated with.

Denying one’s rights in cyberspace can amount to digital confinement, isolation or even incarceration. Emerging digital governance structures should be employed to protect one’s digital identity rights in cyberspace. One should have ownership rights about one’s own digital assets in cyberspace, including one’s digital identities built by others and one’s interactions with others in cyberspace. Digital engagement should be able to be pursued in safety and with protection for both the physical and digital person.

In the context of digital technologies, literal and digital life are co-dependent. Digital life, liberty and security means access to and the right to control one’s identity, data and its uses. This, in turn, impacts one’s literal life. The right to life in the context of digital technologies consists of the free right to access and our rights as a digital citizen with respect to the security, privacy and integrity of our digital being and with regard to our rights to the digital identity constructed by those with whom we interact in business, governance, and in society.

The challenge to design and implement digital identities and wallets is not so much good engineering but how to design and implement them in a way that fully respects our fundamental human rights.

2.2 Digital Integrity and Dignity

Freedom is a central tenant of human dignity, as equality is a central tenant of rights. Freedom and equality are prerequisites for a person’s physical and digital integrity. If a person does not have the freedom and ability to control its identity data, one might be faced with veritable digital Frankenstein’s monster identity, assembled from data “body parts” from various sources, often of dubious origin. Such identities can be inaccurate, created without a person’s permission and lacking in integrity. Erroneous data, unverified, can have dire consequences in terms of one’s virtual identity and real-world life. Even correct data processed through a non-transparent algorithm can, in its application, be harmful to people in both the virtual and physical worlds. A multitude of false digital identities can emerge that undermine one’s integrity, none bearing any fidelity to one’s true literal and digital selves.

2.3 Access

There have been many innovations to aid communication, but the Internet, as the current step in improved communication, is different. With access, people can connect and interact in synchronous and asynchronous time and easily at any distance. Digital technology and infrastructure are, simultaneously, the means and venue for assembly and have become key tools for self-assembly and self-realization. It is, therefore, easy to confuse access to the tools of communication with the right to communication itself. Digital domain is not a human right, but it enables the exercise of human rights and, as such, is a common good and universal Internet access should be a fundamental right and not be subject to questionable constraints on personal rights and freedoms or digital data use practices of questionable integrity.

Access enables the extent of human rights in the digital domain. It is the gatekeeper to digital opportunities. Accessing the digital domain is an act of exercising one’s digital citizenship. Equal treatment as digital citizens means equal access to the digital domain for all. Citizenship without adequate digital access is diminished. This underscores the need to treat digital access as a public good and not just another private consumable.

The digital domain has become so significant in human affairs that some wish to declare that access should be treated as human right. That risks confusing access to the tools of communication with the right to communication itself. Equally, the Internet is an important tool to better respect and realize human rights, but it is more like the objectives in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and not a right in and of itself.

2.4 Rights and Duties

Our rights are inseparable from our being as a person. How these rights are interpreted and manifested themselves can vary by context and can evolve over time, but the fundamental values expressed in the UDHR and guiding that process are unchangeable.

With rights come obligations. Our identity and dignity as digital citizens depend on how well we exercise both rights and obligations. Our digital obligations are based on our digital rights and are (or should be) being established through proper policy-making processes. Under no circumstances should policy-making or outcomes negate or violate our fundamental human rights, as expressed in the UDHR.

The lack of legitimate and effective policy-making processes around digital rights leaves us in a position with limited control over our digital identity. The resulting loss of digital integrity restricts the exercise of our digital rights and duties.

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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