Digital Rights – COVID Response and Post-COVID Context
GENEVA (4 June 2021) – As the world rebuilds civic space during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, UN experts stress that human rights apply online, as offline, and digital rights must be a top priority.
“Despite the instrumental role of the internet and digital technologies, which have provided new avenues for the exercise of public freedoms and access to health and related information and care in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, States continue to leverage these technologies to muzzle dissent, surveil, and quash online and offline collective action and the tech companies have done too little to avert such abuse of human rights,” the experts said.
“We are deeply concerned that these patterns of abuse, which have further accelerated under the exigencies of the pandemic, will continue and exacerbate inequalities worldwide.”
“We need to act together to embrace the fast-pace expansion of digital space and technological solutions that are safe, inclusive and rights-based,” nine U.N. human rights experts* said ahead of the annual RightsCon summit on human rights in the digital age from June 7-11.
COVID-19 recovery efforts to “build back better” must address serious threats contributing to the closing of civic space and suppression of free speech and media freedom, the experts said, along with ongoing global crises such as systemic violence, climate change, structural inequality, institutional racism, and gender-based violence.
They specifically pointed to internet shutdowns during peaceful protests, digital divides and accessibility barriers including to basic human rights and services, disinformation and misinformation; attacks independent and diverse media; algorithmic discrimination, online threats against human rights defenders, mass and targeted surveillance, cyberattacks and attempts to undermine encryption.
The experts said the pandemic had particularly heightened digital inequalities and discrimination against, among others: people of African descent, ethnic groups, minority groups and communities facing religious, and ethnic discrimination, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, internally displaced people, people affected by extreme poverty, women and girls, migrants and refugees, LGBTQ+, gender diverse persons, human rights and environmental defenders, journalists and activists, worldwide.
They also raised concern about ongoing repression of peaceful protests around the world and an unprecedented spike in reports of child sexual abuse material online.
The experts stressed that States — and the tech sector — must take additional systemic measures so that their efforts reach those who are most at risk of being disproportionately affected. Platforms must be inclusive through engaging people in the ground and improving their investments in least developed countries. “We must leave no one behind — online or offline,” they said.
The experts reiterated the need for States to maintain their positive obligation to promote and protect human rights, including through rights-respecting regulations on tech companies. Initiatives to regulate online spaces need to be participatory and fully grounded in human rights standards. Businesses need to uphold their responsibility to respect human rights, including by reviewing their business models, and be held accountable for acts of digital repression, such as the non-transparent content takedowns and manipulation recently witnessed in various regions of the world. “The opacity that prevails in the ways content is moderated by Governments and companies reinforces global perceptions of discrimination, inefficiency and censorship. There is an urgent need for transparency”, stressed the experts.
The experts further called on companies to stop supplying governments with technologies — such as spyware tools and applications claiming to recognise faces, genders, disabilities and emotions — which reinforce risks for defenders and civil society actors when exercising their legitimate right to voice critical concerns and defend human rights. Businesses need to prevent and address these risks and avoid contributing consciously or inadvertently to further shrinking civic space.
The experts also cautioned against the repurposing of security and counter-terrorism measures, specifically the use of new technologies, data collection, surveillance and biometric technologies to securitise health and regulate a health pandemic whose effects are most severely felt by minority and groups at heightened risk. They demanded that already controversial public-private security partnerships be subjected to additional scrutiny when leveraged into the public health arena.
The expertsreiterated that “only with concerted multilateral efforts to restore solidarity and mutual trust, will we overcome the pandemic while becoming more resilient and united“. They also warned particularly against using the pandemic as an excuse to rush forward “digital transformation”, as exemplified in digital vaccine certificates, without prioritising foundational digital rights safeguards.
During the summit, the UN human rights experts will discuss a range of issues such as: “The Oceans and Maritime Space as the New Frontier to Defend Human Rights in the Expansion of Counter-Terrorism Domains”; “When States of Emergency Collide: COVID-9, Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Data Flows”, internet shutdown during peaceful protest, the digitalization of welfare systems, which may lead to excluding beneficiaries based even on minor or inconsequential irregularities and to increased targeting, with potential under inclusion of people in poverty; “XR for Everyone: Questions, Challenges, and Solutions in Support of Accessible XR”; and “Making the Right Impact: Human Rights Compliant AI”; disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression, gender justice and freedom of expression.
* The experts:
Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights;
David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment;
Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health;
Dante Pesce (Chairperson), Surya Deva (Vice-Chairperson), Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai, and Anita Ramasastry the Working Group on Business and Human Rights