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 political and public participation

UDHR Article 21

In today’s world, our lives increasingly take place online. While the internet offers endless opportunities, our social media and online lives create equally as many possibilities to exploit the regulation gaps harbored by the digital world.

In the election context, such gaps can mean the difference between a freely and fairly elected government, or a win based on a manipulative social media campaign built on lies and falsehoods.

Election campaigns no longer are confined to ads on posters, in newspapers, or on radio and TV. They have found their way onto our personal devices: on our Facebook, Twitter and other social media feeds. Sometimes, they aren’t recognisable as political ads, and they can be targeted through algorithms that have studied our profiles and learned our preferences. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns over the misuse of personal information for microtargeting in the UK Brexit referendum are a good example.

In the online world, elections are run and controlled by private companies, often outside the reach of traditional regulatory mechanisms.

Sometimes these companies are specifically excluded from regulation. In Bulgaria, for example, the 2019 election code regulates “media service providers” and defines  media services as the “creation and distribution of information and content which are intended for reception by, and which could have a clear impact on, a significant proportion of the general public”. But a few lines later, the code states that “the social networks: Facebook, Twitter and other such, and the personal blogs shall not be media services” leaving it up to the companies to decide if and how to regulate targeted or misleading election advertising – something Facebook has in the past declined to do.

So what can we do? We must ensure that existing laws on privacy and equality, as well as sector specific normative frameworks such as electoral codes, also apply in the digital context to hold states accountable. We must also hold corporations to account for their online actions.

We should also ensure collaboration between groups working on issues such as equality and non-discrimination and those with tech expertise, working on issues such as privacy and data protection. Marginalised communities are the first to feel the negative impact of online manipulations. They are scapegoated, targeted for exclusion, or worse.

Free and fair elections form the very baseline of democracy and the rights enshrined in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which ensures that people have a say in the governance of the country they live in. In the context of elections, digital rights and regulations are the gateway that make or break access to all human rights.

By Nora Mbagathi, Associate Legal Officer at Open Society Justice Initiative.