If someone ignores a human rights violation

Human rights

Ben Wagner

Ben Wagner is head of the Center of Internet & Human Rights (CIHR) at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and is responsible for all research projects. The doctorate in political and social science researches, among other things, on the topics of digital rights and the role of the Internet in foreign politics. He has held a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow with Human Rights Watch and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others.

Kilian Vieth

Kilian Vieth works and researches at the Center of Internet & Human Rights (CIHR) of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). His research interests are critical security studies, digitization of work, and the ethics of algorithms.

Digitization penetrates all public and private areas of life - and thus also has an impact on human rights. Digital technology can help enforce human rights; but it can also lead to new forms of human rights violations. In the debate about human rights, digitization has so far mostly been reduced to the topics of surveillance and censorship - but this does not go far enough, according to the authors Ben Wagner and Kilian Vieth.

Smartphones and social networks facilitate mobilization and coordination during protests - as here in Skopje during the mass demonstrations against the Macedonian government in April 2016. (& copy picture alliance / PIXSELL)

The process of digitization should not be understood as a purely technical, but also as a social phenomenon. How digitization affects our lives and our coexistence with others is always also a political question. On the one hand, this means that technology influences human behavior and thinking. On the other hand, people also influence how technology is used, what it does and how it works. The decisive human rights question is therefore not only: What do new technologies do with people? But also: What do people do with technologies?

In the debate about human rights, the answers to this question have so far mostly been reduced to the topics of surveillance and censorship. It is therefore important to emphasize that digitization affects all areas of life and human rights. "The digital" is not an isolated, virtual sphere beyond a "real" world, but is integrated directly and in a variety of ways into our living environment. The term "cyberspace", for example, should therefore be viewed critically, as it suggests a separate space that is detached from reality. The universal approach to human rights must not be restricted just because it is about digital communication, robots or computer networks.

In no country in the world are all human rights successfully enforced. Nor are all human rights sufficiently taken into account in the design and application of technology. Digital technology can help to reduce human rights violations by making processes more transparent, facilitating the documentation of human rights violations or enabling a public debate on human rights issues. But it can also lead to new or intensified forms of human rights violations. Using a few central thematic blocks, we want to make the breadth and depth of the upheavals of digitization and their human rights implications clear.

First of all, it is important to point out that human rights can never apply absolutely and without restriction, as they are often in conflict with one another and therefore have to be weighed against one another. This balancing of universal rights of freedom and equality logically also takes place on the Internet. So this is not what the following is about if, rather how Human rights are applied on the internet.

Access to communication

Access to the Internet is an important prerequisite for exercising rights and freedoms and for participating in the democratic process. Internet access is not a documented human right, but in today's information society, effective participation without access to digital communication is only possible to a very limited extent. One of the sustainability development goals of the UN therefore envisages significantly improving access to information and communication technology and enabling affordable internet access worldwide by 2020.

In many countries, however, the targeted shutdown of communication networks is often on the agenda. Most of the time this happens in the course of political crises, such as the Arab Spring, when governments see security at risk. But also shortly before elections or during mass protests, shutdowns are very widespread. However, free, stable access to a general information and communication infrastructure that is open to all people is a prerequisite for the realization of human rights.

Example of net neutrality

One principle by which free and equal access to digital communication is to be ensured is net neutrality [1]. This means that all data that is passed through the Internet is treated equally. In other words, a prohibition of discrimination for data, which excludes favoring or disadvantaging individual Internet service providers. This is to protect the basic egalitarian structure of the Internet, according to which everyone can connect to the Internet without restriction and offer or access content. If there is no net neutrality, Internet access providers can, for example, charge extra fees for individual platforms and make access more difficult for small providers, which restricts competition, openness and the variety of offers on the Internet.

Equality and digitization

A central principle of human rights is equal rights for all people. On the one hand, repression and discrimination continue on the Internet. On the other hand, it shows that technology can promote equal treatment.

To better understand the connection between discrimination and technology, it helps to distinguish between intentional and unintentional discrimination [2]. If one person deliberately harms another, for example out of hatred or envy, this is deliberate discrimination. This explicit discrimination occurs, for example, as "hate speech" [3] on social media platforms. People deliberately insult and threaten other people, for example because they have a different skin color, a different gender, a different sexual orientation or if they belong to a different religion. When dealing with hate speech, for example, a balance must be drawn between the right to non-discrimination and the right to freedom of expression [4].

In contrast, unintentional discrimination is the result of unconscious prejudice and a structural phenomenon. Discriminatory structures can be reflected in the laws and regulations of a country as well as in the social norms and traditions of a society or in the technology that surrounds us. Unequal treatment and exclusion can often be imperceptibly built into a technical system: for example, in that automated algorithms that social insurance companies use when accepting new members discriminate - for example based on gender, income or sexual orientation.