In the last decade or so, human rights scholars, practitioners and activists have been warning about the existence of a phenomenon called “human rights fatigue”. The term describes a tendency to take the entitlements we hold as human beings as granted and pertaining only to certain groups – LGBTI, women, ethnic or religious minorities. This is a dangerous trend that leaves us increasingly exposed to new challenges posed by globalization, digitalization and information technology when it comes to human dignity and already existing rights – freedom of expression, protection of privacy and even the right to use the Internet.
A 2019 documentary called “The Great Hack”* aimed to prove that data mining poses a real threat and unfortunately, has already been happening on a large scale. The documentary shows how the company Cambridge Analytica developed Facebook apps that were used to gather data about Facebook users and their friends and create personality profiles. These profiles supposedly were then used by political campaigns around the world to target specific clusters of voters with selective and carefully-designed ads and information. One of the documentary’s protagonists, Associate Professor and digital rights advocate David Carroll, went to court in order to acquire the personal information that Cambridge Analytica collected without his permission.
Implications of sharing or selling personal data for economic and political gain without the permission or the sufficient knowledge of users appear at both the individual and the societal levels. Such actions might harm the person by violating one’s privacy, revealing confidential or sensitive information, make the person vulnerable to cyber-bullying and extortion and in general lead to serious psychological and emotional distress. This dictates the need for comprehensive legislation at national level to clearly define related criminal offenses and penalize both legal persons and individuals who commit such offenses.
Data mining could also make us unwilling participants in processes, quite disruptive for our societies. Firstly, it could expose those of us, condescendingly called “persuadables”, to even more aggressive disinformation. Secondly, it encourages relatively difficult-to-trace manipulation for political purposes, which in turn might bring or deepen societal polarization based on the information (be it truthful or not) different groups have access to. Lastly, such practices could force people into conscious self-isolation – afraid to be spied on or manipulated, some of us might choose to disconnect and abandon social media, messaging platforms, streaming services, online learning platforms, online payment systems, etc. Threats like these necessitate better regulation of similar services and unequivocal commitment to privacy and data protection on the part of their providers – nationally, regionally, and globally.
Framing and treating digital rights as fundamental, human rights is essential, as it could elevate the discussion about them to the international level and result in the creation of a binding convention or a treaty specifically focused on the protection of digital rights. Optimistically, it could even make some governments and companies listen and design and implement stricter policies and procedures in this regard.
Indeed, a discussion on the risks of data mining and data collection has already started and at some places better regulation and protection of digital rights is in place. A good example is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force in the European Union in 2018. GDPR’s aim is to strengthen data privacy laws in EU Member States, prevent breaches of privacy and give us better control over our personal data. However, GDPR is a relatively new instrument and its impact is yet to be assessed. Elsewhere, such regulations are missing or insufficient, the United States being a notable example. Therefore, the question whether there is data protection legislation and policies in place is no longer the most important one. We should rather ask whether these are complied with and implemented. Are monitoring and assessment systems in place? Are individuals familiar with the mechanisms that protect their rights and allow them to claim damages in case of infringement? What are the tools and functionalities that help us control the personal information being collected and are these straightforward, adequate and easily accessible?
Understanding digital rights as fundamental rights could cure the “fatigue” and remind us that human rights belong not only to vulnerable groups but to all human beings. Of course, one could say that digital rights concern only those who use the Internet, have a social media profile, talk to family and friends through telecommunication applications, pay their bills and shop online, read online newspapers, magazines and books, fill online quizzes, watch movies or listen to music through streaming services. However, according to the International Telecommunication Union, at the end of 2018 more than half of global population has been using the Internet. We have to admit that this is a pretty big group.
* The documentary “The Great Hack” has been produced and directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer and is available on Netflix.