Human rights in the digital age

The working group on "human rights in the digital age" will initially comprise two main tracks.

Track 1: "New frontiers of free expression and public debate in the digital age"

Free and robust public debate is a prerequisite for pluralistic democratic societies. However, in many countries, the civic space in which such debate takes place is shrinking fast, threatened by repressive laws and authoritarian regimes and politicians who would rather stifle criticism and democratic dissent. Increasingly, the growing range of actors in public debate – journalists, media actors, NGOs, academics, bloggers, human rights defenders, etc. – are being subjected to violence, threats, harassment, arbitrary detention, vexatious litigation, etc. While the Internet has brought unprecedented opportunities for individual mass communication, it has also given rise to other threats to public debate that are specific to the online environment. For instance, new private gate-keepers have emerged, which control access to and influence the terms and topics of public debate. These are typically non-State actors which enter into contractual relationships with their users. These developments prompt probing questions about whether and how existing human rights frameworks can safeguard robust, pluralistic public debate in which a diversity of voices and critical opinions can be articulated without fear. And how can trust be earned and facts and truth be defended in a civic space that is being swamped by waves of disinformation and so-called ‘fake news’? The rights, duties and responsibilities of all relevant actors – from tech giants to individual social media users – require re-thinking and repurposing for the digital age. These and other issues will feature centrally in the research-related activities pursued in Track 1.

Track 2: "New frontiers of privacy and data protection in the digital age"

In recent years, there has been a surge of academic interest in the rights to privacy and data protection, which can be explained partly by the affordances of advanced technological possibilities in the fields of data processing, surveillance and connectivity, and partly by the
introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Big Data and the Internet of Things are now familiar terms across disciplines and in public discourse. The far-reaching regulatory and practical implications of these developments are testing the resilience of existing paradigms and understandings of the rights to privacy and data protection in new ways. Indeed, it is sometimes even a challenge to identify and work out the precise human rights ramifications of particular issues, e.g. automated decision-making and algorithm-based personalised recommendation systems. Track 2 will engage with the growing multi-perspectival scholarship on privacy and data protection and foreground their human rights ramifications. Participating researchers will seek to identify key, urgent challenges and examine the potential and limitations of (i) existing regulatory instruments, and (ii) technological solutions (e.g. privacy and data protection ‘by default’ and ‘by design’) to meet those challenges.

Tracks 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive. Their thematic overlap includes, e.g. the chilling effects caused by surveillance of journalists and other contributors to public debate; Internet intermediaries’ duties and responsibilities in respect of human rights, and liability for breaches of their users’ rights to freedom of expression, privacy and data protection. Another cross-cutting theme is media/digital literacy. In the digital age, the promotion of media/digital literacy calls for strong emphasis on acquiring knowledge of human rights issues and technological know-how. Furthermore, the overarching theme also covers other pressing issues that do not fall squarely in either Track 1 or 2, e.g. the human rights dimension to artificial intelligence.

Working group members

  • Dr. Tarlach McGonagle, senior researcher, Institute for Information Law (IViR), Faculty of Law, University of Amsterdam
  • Ms. Aviva de Groot, Ph.D. candidate, Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT), Tilburg University / Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS).

Biographies

Tarlach McGonagle is currently involved in, or leading, a number of activities at/for the Council of Europe and the OSCE. For instance, he was recently elected to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on Quality Journalism in the Digital Age (for details, please see here) and he is currently drafting a new set of Guidelines on National Minorities and the Media in the Digital Age for the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. His academic profile is available here.  

Aviva de Groot’s legal research focuses on humans and technology, their mutual influence and effects on human rights. She has extensive professional legal experience in the field of administration law, particularly on cases revolving around automated decision-making. Information and ensuing power imbalances resulting from different levels of (technical) knowledge have her special attention. These interests lie at the heart of her PhD research on transparency of AI/algorithmic decision-making. Previously, at the University of Amsterdam (Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies), she was coordinator of an interdisciplinary minor programme on privacy. With an earlier career in film-making, Aviva has ample experience with working in dynamic environments and coordinating diverse projects.