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Protecting human rights in the digital age

©FRA/Voglhuber, 2021

As new technologies continue to change the way we work, communicate or date, we have to ask ourselves: what do these developments mean for our human rights?

And how do we make sure that we can all enjoy the benefits of digitalisation without our human rights getting lost among the rise of the machines?



At the Fundamental Rights Forum 2021, Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights issued a challenge for us all to “catch up” with the relentless march of progress.

“The digitalisation of our lives is so commonplace I think we still fail to grasp its sheer breadth and its ubiquity, and the extent to which it is invading our every human space,” he told the Forum participants.

He stressed the need to catch up with the technological developments and meaningfully engage with artificial intelligence and digitalisation.

Because digital technology really is everywhere. Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, told the Forum: “AI is part of your everyday experience: from ordering dog food on Alexa to helping us build develop covid vaccines.

“It also raises big questions such as using facial recognition in public spaces or social media optimising for clicks.

“We actually have to understand how these things work in order to hold them accountable,” said Surman.

But as data protection consultant Pat Walsh explained, understanding how technologies work and what their impact on human rights is, is not always easy.

When talking about facial recognition technology, he highlighted: “What is the real impact of this technology on fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals? From a business perspective, I do not see this being at the centre of the design process.”

That is why many others called for proper human rights impact assessments to ensure technology respects rights.

“How can you know or foresee the risk, if you didn't assess the potential impact of this,” asked Vanja Škorić, Senior Legal Advisor at the European Center for Not-For-Profit Law, when discussing how to build trustworthy artificial intelligence.

“There is no trust without actually knowing what is in the system and that it is benefitting you and not harming you,” she added.

Another important topic that resonated throughout the Forum was accessibility.

Tytti Matsinen from the European Blind Union spoke about the indispensable role of technology for disabled people.

“Especially in times of crisis, accessibility reveals its true value. For blind or partially sighted people, digital accessibility became indispensable as soon as the pandemic started,” she said.

That is why Anamaria Meskhurti from the International Telecommunication Union called on product developers: “It is fundamental of course for everyone to keep accessibility in their minds – especially those of you who are creating products, you need to really think of inclusivity, no matter at what cost it comes.”

Hate speech, misinformation and freedom of expression were other topics frequently discussed at the Forum.

Iain Levine, Senior Human Rights Adviser at Meta, talked about the pitfalls of protecting human rights in the digital environment.

“We are looking to find the right balance between freedom of expression and people’s rights to express themselves freely on the platform, and the protection from harm that can come from hate speech and misinformation, violence….

“It is a constant challenge, given the scale and the speed with which information is posted and can be shared.”

Campaigner Craig Dwyer stressed that despite many issues, technology can do many good things too.

“Whilst these bad actors will continue to operate online on digital platforms, let's not lose sight of how it can also be a powerful force for good as well”, said Dwyer.

Mark Surmann concluded: “We are talking about there being a balance between technology and us as citizens. It is about transparency and the checks and balances we have always needed in a democratic society.”

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