Digital Rights are Human Rights

The Digital Freedom Fund counted down to Human Rights Day 2020 with a series of short posts. Each post was written by a guest author and illustrates how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies in the digital age. The full series can be viewed here.

The right to social security

UDHR Article 22

Coming out of Second World War trauma, the international community announced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone should have a right to social security. Back then, it meant that the basic needs of all people must be fulfilled, and societies should do whatever they can to make this possible.

The right to social security is deeply connected to the idea of the welfare state and distributional justice. It includes creating “social safety nets” such as cash transfers and benefits that help communities deal with life’s challenges related to unemployment, illness, old age or parenthood.

But today’s welfare state is very different. The extensive use of digital technologies has led to significant changes in social security. Algorithms, machine learning and AI are more and more often used to predict social risks, automate eligibility checks, calculate benefits or detect welfare frauds.

Big data and automated cost-effectiveness analyses play a crucial role in creating new policies and making meaningful governmental decisions. From Indian Aadhaar and Dutch SyRi systems to Kenyan biometric schemes and Polish profiling of unemployed tools, countries all around the globe practice digital upgrades of welfare administration.

Despite the promise of greater efficiency, these new systems often produce flawed results and reduce our ability to challenge and negotiate unfair computerised verdicts. The use of technologies often replicates old hierarchies, power relations, and inequalities.

Exclusive online applications and services in welfare administration also mean that those deprived of connectivity or digital skills face exclusion from necessary social support.

These changes often go hand in hand with budget cuts, austerity measures, and punitive welfare policies. They increase the power of technological corporations, strengthening their ability to replace legislators and governments in shaping crucial public decisions.

The right to social security creates a framework for understanding and responding to these issues.

Social rights can address some of the issues that mainstream digital rights issues, such as data protection or due process safeguards, neglect. Such issues often focus on procedural aspects, such as consent, better control of information processing, and the possibility to appeal. In contrast, the right to social security can highlight actual harms and losses experienced by people, be it reduction of social benefits or the loss of assistance in the event of unemployment and illness.

Through this lens, we can consider the role of automated systems in meeting people’s basic needs, or their impact on the adequate distribution of public services.

In this context, social rights go beyond procedural concerns and provide the necessary “material end” when thinking about digital rights and justice.

By Jędrzej Niklas, postdoctoral researcher at Data Justice Lab.