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 education

UDHR Article 26

Everyone has the right to education, but COVID-19 has widened an existing divide in realising this right worldwide. 

Long before coronavirus, lost learning hours were routine for children in marginalised communities, with additional educational needs, or living in poverty.

Making digital the default means of delivery has consequences for those who can continue to learn outside the classroom, and for those who cannot. 

Under Article 26, education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. If digital infrastructure is a prerequisite to states meeting their obligations, its delivery should be universal, but in practice, the cost of online access falls on families privately. Underfunded schools can have too little hardware to lend, and tell families to buy school-defined hardware.

Deprivation, family choices, or the constraints of physical network and systems’ capacity to meet growing demand can mean some children have no access to devices or to the internet.

In addition to physical access to infrastructure, when it comes to education software and services, products can be inaccessible due to design, or staff or pupils’ capability. 

The rapid shift has also had broader consequences for children, schools, society  and state parties.

Schools under pressure to support distance learning fast but without new funding or training often procured “freeware” without due diligence. Some free products come at the cost of children’s human rights, dignity and freedoms. Economic exploitation of their personal data, products with intrusive advertising, invasive behavioural surveillance or discrimination by-design are routine. These consequences reach beyond the school grounds and into private and family life.

Furthermore, proprietary providers can lock in limitations on the control of future services, choices or costs, with long-term implications for the sustainable delivery of state education and the political power of companies in educational reform.

And the imposition of a digital-first approach has undermined parents’ right to autonomy under Article 26, who had chosen no-tech or low tech teaching for their children.

Rapid digital adoption has supported learning for some children, but has also created new barriers and unintended consequences.

Data protection frameworks give state parties common approaches to the enforcement of rights and it is timely that the CoE Committee of Convention 108 has adopted new Guidelines on Children’s Data Protection in an Education Setting. But we need to look beyond data protection law for children in the digital environment and consider equality, competition and consumer laws. 

States around the world must cooperate in and beyond this pandemic to uphold every child’s universal right to education among their full range of rights, if we are to promote global human flourishing.

By Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme.