Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom
The internet is an increasingly important tool through which human rights defenders and activists mobilise and advocate. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution which reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Nonetheless, states around the world continue to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet. Companies in the ICT sector can be involved in this limiting of digital freedoms, either directly, or by facilitating violations by governments and/or abuses by other firms.
Digital freedom is facing decline globally for the 7th year in a row. Freedom on the Net index 2020 covers trends such as manipulation of social media in democratic processes, shutdowns of mobile and internet service, and attacks on online activists. These obstructions and attacks impact on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but also create economic costs, affecting entire economies and individual businesses.
Moreover, governments are now regularly acquiring powerful surveillance technology from private firms, as Surveillance Industry Index shows. According to Privacy International, the surveillance industry routinely disregards human rights considerations, providing repressive regimes with capabilities often used for tracking of defenders. They believe that without proper legal mechanisms to restrain the flow of surveillance technology, this industry “will continue to undermine privacy and facilitate other human rights abuses, as well as undermine international security”. One example in 2017 was the Mexican government’s widespread spying on human rights defenders, through the use of NSO group’s spyware.
Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies’ policies and practices can also positively affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy, including those of defenders, especially when they work together. Ranking Digital Rights’ data shows that many of the top-scoring companies in 2017 were members of either the Global Network Initiative (GNI) or the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (TID), whose company members commit to uphold principles of freedom of expression and privacy. You can learn how ICT companies are upholding human rights online and offline here.
Our 2014 Briefing Paper on this sector highlights key human rights issues for ICT firms: censorship; surveillance; privacy; broadening access; supply chain impacts and children's rights.
Related stories and components
Telia Company shares Covid-19-related data requests received & its response as part of commitment to transparency, privacy & freedom of expression
Author: Telia Company
"Freedom of expression and the right to privacy in times of COVID-19 - information on unconventional requests (March-April 2020)"...
- Related in-depth areas: COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak: Government & business response Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom
- Related companies: Telia
Author: Eric Null & Jennifer Brody, Brink (US)
"Are Contact-Tracing Apps the Answer? Lessons the US Can Learn From Other Countries," 11 May 2020...
Facebook releases findings of independent human rights impact assessments of the role of its services in Sri Lanka, Indonesia & Cambodia
Facebook has released the findings of three independent human rights impact assessments it commissioned in 2018 that examined the degree to which its platforms did or did not contribute to adverse human rights impacts in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and...
Author: Ivana Nikolic, Balkan Insight (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Tech Giants Urged to Preserve Blocked Content About Virus, 22 April 2020...
Author: Owen Bowcott, The Guardian
"Covid-19 tracking app must satisfy human rights and data laws", 3 May 2020...
Author: Access Now, Article 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation & 72 other organisations
We understand that many platforms have increased their reliance on automated content moderation during the pandemic, while simultaneously removing misinformation and apparently inaccurate information about COVID-19 at an unprecedented rate... The...
Author: Christen Dobson & Ali Hines, Ethical Corporation
[C]rises tend to place defenders and the civic freedoms that enable their work in yet more jeopardy, as we are witnessing now with the global Covid-19 pandemic. Colombian death squads are exploiting the pandemic lockdown to kill activists, people in...
Cyber-intelligence companies pitch governments on spy tools to trace Covid-19, raising privacy concerns
Author: Joel Schectman, Christopher Bing, & Jack Stubbs, Reuters (UK)
"Special report: Cyber-intel firms pitch governments on spy tools to trace coronavirus," 28 April 2020...
- Related in-depth areas: COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak: Surveillance, censorship & privacy Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom
- Related companies: Alphabet Apple Cellebrite (part of Sun Corporation) Cytrox (part of WiSpear) Facebook Google (part of Alphabet) Intellexa (joint venture Nexa Technologies, WiSpear, & Cytrox) Nexa Technologies (formerly AMESys (Advanced Middle East Systems)/Amesys (part of Bull)) NSO Group Sun Corporation Verint Whatsapp (part of Facebook) WiSpear