As We Fight Climate Change, Let’s Not Forget Digital Rights

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 4th June 2020

It is a sad reality that World Environment Day, which takes place this Friday, June 5th, can hardly be considered a joyous celebration of the world around us. Rather, the day serves as yet another much-needed call to action to tackle pressing environmental problems.

As the climate catastrophe looms, environmental issues will inevitably overlap with digital rights on multiple planes. Climate change has grave implications for human rights, and many of those rights relate to privacy, surveillance, AI, data, and the free flow of information – all of which fall under the umbrella of digital rights.

Nobody can deny that we are in dire need of innovative solutions, including technological ones, to tackle this unprecedented crisis. But at the same time, we must ensure that new technologies respect our human rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the tendency to let respect for human rights slide in emergency circumstances. But such a situation is not sustainable and can have grave consequences. That’s why it is absolutely crucial that we don’t sacrifice people’s fundamental rights and liberties as the fight against climate change intensifies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the tendency to let respect for human rights slide in emergency circumstances

Surveillance

It’s typical in this day and age for governments to respond to crises by rolling out measures that increase surveillance and monitoring of populations. Data can certainly help in assessing situations more accurately, but it also increases government control and threatens people’s privacy and freedoms.

As time ticks on, and climate change renders more areas unliveable, or induces conflict, more and more people are being forced to flee their home countries. Asylum seekers and refugees are often at particular risk when it comes to their digital rights: states often deploy measures, such as biometric data collection and geo-tracking, in order to identify them, track their movements, and conduct “security checks”. As a vulnerable group often without a state willing to defend their interests, asylum seekers are particularly at risk as climate change worsens.

Surveilling environmental activists or hacking their devices is a common way to keep tabs on them or suppress their work

Another group at high risk of digital rights breaches are environmental activists. Defending the environment has become one of the most dangerous jobs out there: many are subjects of harassment and violence, and many have even been killed. Surveilling environmental activists or hacking their devices is a common way to keep tabs on them or suppress their work, which often runs counter to powerful interests. Activists must not only be protected, but encouraged and supported to continue their invaluable work.

Connectivity

One of the core UN sustainable development goals is achieving open and secure internet connectivity for everyone. These days, access to the internet is a crucial equality issue: it’s how we communicate and disseminate information. Having certain pockets of the world locked out from that is therefore a growing human rights issue. Internet shutdowns, for example, tend to signal human rights violations.

The thing is, it’s not just about having access to the internet: it’s also about having access to an internet that supports the free flow of information. When certain information is censored, filtered or blocked, people’s rights are violated, and inequality is exacerbated. That is why human rights must be built into initiatives to roll out internet connectivity, and that schemes carrying out this important job are subject to the requisite human rights assessments.

Digital Design

While many digital technologies are built with the explicit goal of improving sustainability, technology is not universally sustainable: far from it, in fact, with many digital tools themselves being significant drivers of climate change. Mining bitcoin, for example, generates enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, while data centres gobble electricity.

Mining bitcoin, for example, generates enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, while data centres gobble electricity

Our devices, from smartphones to laptops, consume vast amounts of energy. With tech giants offering us shiny new products each year, we’re also consuming greater numbers of electronics and disposing of them, leading to a lot of unnecessary “e-waste”. This isn’t always the consumer’s fault, of course – nowadays, many devices are built to break.

As well as this, new tools that seek to increase sustainability may threaten digital rights in other aspects. Precision agriculture, for example, is being hailed as a sustainable saviour, but it uses artificial intelligence, which can pose challenges for digital rights, due to lack of transparency or bias. 

This World Environment Day, we will hopefully be able to make advances and consider new and cutting-edge solutions to the climate crisis. But as we move forward in the process and put the environment to the top of our priorities, let’s not overlook digital rights. By considering both, we can work towards a more sustainable and equitable world.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash