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 freedom of expression

UDHR Article 19

I like to imagine the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gathered around a virtual conference table, whether it’s Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans or some other platform for the pandemic. Eleanor Roosevelt gavels in the meeting. 

“René. René! Are you here? Please mute yourself. OK. I suppose I have everyone’s consent to the language here in Article 19, yes?” she queries in her authoritative and recognisable cadence.

And indeed she did, for everyone has agreed that the United Nations should declare everyone’s right to hold opinions without interference and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The drafters of this language would be comfortable in their digital environment. They would understand how the rights to browse, download and post map neatly onto seek, receive and impart. They doubted stasis, understanding the reality of an always evolving information space (any media) and a borderless information environment (regardless of frontiers).

Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues, however, did not seal off the right to freedom of expression from the other rights the Declaration articulated. They understood that they were crafting a whole, a document promising that everyone should enjoy “all the rights and freedoms” they set forth, “without distinction of any kind” (Article 2). They specified but did not limit the Declaration to oppose discrimination based on “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The online platforms of the moment have massive power. Even as they claim to rest on the freedom of expression, a convenient right on which to base a business model of engagement and attention, their owners cannot ignore the possibility that their products may interfere with other rights – they may discriminate, they may interfere.

They may do so unthinkingly, by creating automation tools that are simply unable to make the kinds of distinctions that both promote expression and resist discrimination, hate, incitement. They may do so negligently, by failing to account for the vast experiences of their users and the publics where they operate, or by ignoring the contexts of harassment and violence and misogyny that the words themselves do not reveal to rulemakers thousands of miles away.

As with every Human Rights Day, it’s useful to remember that the Declaration was not written merely for its moment in 1948. It was meant to last, to be applied by the powerful in order to promote and guarantee all of its rights and to protect everyone who needs its protection. Today that is a message that must be heard, with a set of rights that must be protected, by governments, by private platforms, and by those who build and govern today’s internet.

By David Kaye, professor of law at the University of California and former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.