Would you like to live knowing that your smartphone is being spied on or that your post on social media can be deleted for no reason? Or imagine that you have become a famous blogger and that your account on just has been blocked without explanation. What would you do?
On 8 February, the world marked the Safer Internet Day. The line between the digital and real worlds is increasingly blurred. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that digital technologies and communications are not the future, but the present of the global order. That is why knowing your digital rights is important. As a result, you will have much more confidence in safeguarding them and making others respect them.
Let’s take a look at some of your digital rights, namely: the right to information, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, the right to be forgotten, and the right to access. But first, we will look at how digital rights are promoted at the international and EU levels.
Digital rights as fundamental human rights
Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter are all collecting our data, sophisticated spying software such as Pegasus is being used to access the data of journalists and policy-makers, autocratic regimes are increasingly using surveillance and censorship technologies within their digital ecosystems. All this has drawn the attention of the international community to the topic of digital rights and how they impact on democracy and respect for fundamental human rights.
Digital rights are the same rights laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but applied to the digital world. This was recognised by a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in 2012 stating that “the human rights people enjoy offline also apply online”. In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on “The Right to Privacy in the Digital World”. Similarly, in 2006, international non-governmental organisations issued the Internet Rights Charter, expressing the view that the ability to use the Internet freely is vital to the realisation of human rights.
How does the EU promote digital rights?
The European Union aims to be a leader in the digital sphere and promote the use of technologies for the benefit of its citizens. In March 2021, the European Commission presented the vision of the EU digital transformation – the Digital Compass for the next decade. It includes such milestones as:
- digitalisation of governmental services
- digital transformation of business
- secure and stable infrastructure
- digital skills.
The EU is the frontrunner in the promotion of digital rights of its citizens and uses multiple regulatory instruments aimed at strengthening democracy in the world of technology. Most importantly, the EU’s aspiration to promote its technological sovereignty is based on the respect of citizens’ digital rights
Standards regulation in the tech industry is now a topic of diplomatic talks and policy proposals that bring quick results. An outstanding example of the EU’s regulatory instruments is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was adopted in 2016 and entered into force in 2018. GDPR is a legal instrument requiring those who process the personal data of EU citizens to comply with GDPR provisions, and conferring important rights to individuals whose personal data is collected. The EU is now going to promote this agenda and new regulatory instruments in partnership with the USA in the framework of the Trade and Technological Council established this year. At the same time, the EU has been developing its own Digital Single Market and technological capabilities in the areas of semiconductors, 5/6G, Artificial Intelligence, data governance, as well as supporting legislative acts.
This is why the EU also puts emphasis on the digital transformation in the Eastern Partnership, working through its flagship EU4Digital initiative. The main focus is placed on legal approximation so that the Eastern partner countries can step by step integrate into the EU Digital Single Market. In the Joint Communication on “The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020”, digital transformation was identified as one of four main cooperation pillars aimed at establishing “the Partnership that connects”. As a result, the EU will invest further in the digital transformation of the partner countries and will aim to extend the benefits of its Digital Single Market. Special attention will be paid to the development of infrastructure (broadband), cyber security, and e-governance. Thus, in July 2021, a Joint Staff Working Document on “Recovery, resilience and reform: post 2020 Eastern Partnership priorities” was published, setting specific targets for these dimensions.
Digital is on the agenda of the EU and EaP states. Thus, it is important to know the basic things about our digital rights and security in order to feel safe in the digital world and understand states’ regulations.
So what are main digital rights and how can we safeguard them?
The right to freedom of expression is closely related to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But what does it mean in the digital world? It implies that you may freely express your opinions on the Internet and social media. But it is important to know that this right has some restrictions. On social media, you may not post publications that violate the policies of the network, for example, violent, racist or sexual content. And if you see such content, you can report it to the social media platform. In addition, similar restrictions on your right may be imposed by the domestic law of your country.
The right to information means that you are entitled to access information that is necessary for your welfare. Moreover, you have the right to know who is holding or profiting from information about you and what information is collected or stored by different institutions or social media. For example, if you want to know what personal data Instagram gathers, just go to Settings, choose “Security”, and then “Download data”. In Ukraine, together with my colleagues from the MINZMIN NGO, I teach children how to do that. It is a simple action that only takes a few minutes.
The right to be forgotten suggests that you have the right to ask the service provider, for example Meta (Facebook), to erase all your data. Likewise, you may delete your account on Instagram, and no personal data should be stored or used by the company afterwards.
Last but not least is the right to privacy. You should not forget that you leave your digital footprint, and your data might be illegally collected and used by some entities. For example, Cambridge Analytica collected data on millions of Facebook users later used in a political campaign, which was seen as a major violation of privacy rights. TikTok may share your messages with the government in specific circumstances on its request. You should know that if you use the app, you have already agreed to this. That is why it is always necessary to read the privacy policies of the websites you visit. Such policies clearly state what data is collected and how it is going to be used. Big tech companies claim they provide free services. Yet we pay for them, and the price is our data.
Try not to share private information on social media, such as your geolocation and phone number. It is also a good idea to hide your online/offline status, set a private profile, and share posts only with the people you know. Prevention is always better than reaction.
The list of digital rights may be much longer but at least you need to be aware of those discussed above. Understanding your rights is a prerequisite to using the opportunities on the Internet rationally and safely.
We may talk about digital transformations all around the world, in the EU or the EaP. We may talk about 5/6G, Artificial Intelligence or the Internet of Things, but still your fundamental digital rights matter and will matter irrespective of the advancement of technologies or the creation of new social media. Another question is how governments are going to protect the rights of their citizens and provide the enforcement of the rule of law, considering the growing role of Big Tech companies and advancing technologies that not only pose a threat to human rights and security but to the security and sovereignty of the state. That is the point of the new global order. The EU is leading in promoting the democratic agenda, but each individual also needs to be a responsible user of the Internet.
So keep aware and safe in a digital environment protecting your digital rights!