EU-NGO Human Rights Forum 2020 spotlights the impact of new technologies on human rights
New technologies have brought unprecedented opportunities for the protection and promotion of human rights, a vibrant civil society and pluralistic democracies. At the same time, the misuse of technologies can be a threat to tolerant and equal societies and fundamental freedoms. Digitalisation can lead to restrictions to civil and political rights, whether by accident or by design by state and non-state actors.
The European Union has developed several policies and initiatives to combat these shortcomings. Ensuring that fundamental values are at the heart of creating the right environment of trust for the successful development and use of new technologies is the trademark of the EU’s approach to the digital revolution.
The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the value of new technologies for public health, access to education, information and social protection, and for the exercise of freedom of expression. However, a large spectrum of risks have emerged in terms of potential misuse by state or non-state actors of new technologies that can lead to abuses and human rights violations. For instance, tracking technologies aimed at limiting the spread of the virus can be misused to carry out arbitrary surveillance and violate the right to privacy and data protection laws.
The online environment requires that human rights offline and online are equally protected. This is a pre-condition to ensure trust in the digital environment. Human rights are protected by various international treaties and covenants, which are applicable regardless of whether violations happen online or offline. However, as digital innovations evolve quickly, the international framework might need different provisions than traditional approaches to human rights protection. Discussions are proliferating at UN human rights fora, in the Council of Europe and other international settings on how the international community can seize the full potential of new technologies while mitigating risks.
States are often challenged by the pace of technological advances by Big Tech companies, leaving human rights compliance in the hands of self-regulation and self-oversight by the private sector. This is why multi-stakeholders discussions between EU, civil society, States, business enterprises, (network operators, IT service providers and social media platforms) are essential.
The EU has been at the forefront in upholding high standards for data protection, combatting illegal hate speech on-line and on elaborating a human-centric approach to Artificial Intelligence. Externally, the EU determination to lead efforts on the world stage is enshrined in the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.
Civil society organisations and human rights defenders increasingly rely on new technologies to document human rights violations, to protect victims and share research and findings. On the other hand, they are increasingly subject to harassment and surveillance through digital means. In addition, human rights defenders working on data privacy are increasingly threatened. Civil society and human rights defenders have a fundamental role in addressing the challenges and regulation gaps in these various policy processes and in ensuring that EU lawmakers put human rights at the centre of upcoming digital policies. The forum will aim to empower human rights defenders and civil society working on all these issues.
The EU-NGO Human Rights Forum will provide an essential platform to elaborate recommendations on how the EU can further foster human rights compliance in the digital sphere and seize the potential of new technologies to promote the protection of human rights for all. It will also represent an opportunity to create or strengthen international multistakeholder networks.