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A declaration of digital rights

After 60 years, it’s time to refresh the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to take in the new di

This week saw the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Within it are the foundational principles of dignity, autonomy and freedom of expression.

Forged in the shadow of a dark period of our history, at its heart is an explicit assertion of the power that individuals should have over their own lives, and the principles they should be able to apply in their relationship with governments, businesses, organisations and other individuals.

The Declaration did not mark the moment of victory, but gave us the ammunition for a continual struggle.

And the last decade has seen a new frontier on which these rights can be infringed, where liberties can be inhibited, and where our entitlement to be a full participant in political, social and cultural life interrupted.

As more of our lives become dependent on technology, our digital existences have become a new battlefield for our liberty and democratic principles.

The decisions other people make about or for us in this space are increasingly significant for our ‘offline’ lives, affecting our citizenship, our relationships with those around us, and our ability to be part of a shared political and cultural world.

Despite the utopian language that often surrounds new technology, it is by no means certain that it will automatically help to improve our freedoms and enhance our democratic process.

From the increasing significance of personal information, through to the regulation of content on websites, to freedom of expression and our ability to critique and exchange the culture and information around us, it is becoming ever more apparent that our digital rights are manifestations of these age old principles.

This is why, in the Demos pamphlet Video Republic, we argued for a Declaration of Digital Rights.

The hope is that it can help us translate these fundamental principles into the digital age. Without it, we will lose collective and individual purchase on them, ceding more power to other people, governments and organisations to determine the meaning and course of our lives.

There is a risk that we presume networks like the internet are, by default, open and democratic. But as it has become embedded in everyday life, tensions have emerged between what is possible and existing norms, laws and ways of working. In response, legislation, investment and regulation have begun to shape how network technologies operate.

At the moment, we are not basing these interventions on the principle that technology can help more people have power to influence their lives and the world around them. The focus has been too keenly placed on the interests of those that already have that power.

There are two principle challenges.

Firstly, information has become infinitely more reproducible, meaning we can share it and comment upon it like never before. Digital technology has connected people, their ideas, information, and products, making new kinds of collaboration and innovation possible.

Secondly, information about us and what we do has proliferated. We leave a digital footprint detailing our every move, which has made it easier for others to find out about us and decide on the kind of people we are. Neither of these are good or bad in themselves. But whether it is creating, sharing and critiquing the information around us, or in the investment we have in how others make decisions about who we are, the digital age can either give us more power, or take it away. A statement of digital rights is the only way to guarantee which.

For example, content like video and music is too often seen as just an economic asset. But it is also our culture. As such, there is a democratic imperative to emphasise the principle that people can share and discuss and build upon it. That will only happen if we stress our rights to do so, and build regulation and interventions around those principles.

If we do not stake a claim for such digital rights, then technology is merely in the service of the world as it currently is. The internet will become merely a shop, rather than an engine of social, political and economic innovation. We will not find new spaces for expression, debate and exchange but will find overly regulated, inhibited forums.

Our information will not become a tool for us to have more power over how others see us, and to debate and negotiate our place in the world. It will instead hand others - business and government - the power to decide those things, and the requisite response, for us.

If these rights are to make sense, they have to be universal, and international. We need a right-based paradigm rather than one of heavy regulation and rules. Ofcom and other media bodies are rightly looking at self-regulation and co-regulation, for example.

But these initiatives need to be underpinned by an assertion of the ideal status of individuals in the digital age.

Intervention and regulation around the internet was once seen as an attack on the principles of openness and autonomy.

It is now necessary, in the right form, to guarantee technology remains open, accessible and free. Just as with the Declaration of Human Rights, that takes a healthy mix of optimism, advocacy and realism.

Peter Bradwell is a Demos researcher