Technology and Human Rights: Digital Freedom

The internet is an increasingly important tool through which human rights defenders and activists mobilise and advocate. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution which reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Nonetheless, states around the world continue to filter, monitor, and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the openness of the internet. Companies in the ICT sector can be involved in this limiting of digital freedoms, either directly, or by facilitating violations by governments and/or abuses by other firms.

Digital freedom is facing decline globally for the 7th year in a row. Freedom on the Net index 2017 reveals trends such as manipulation of social media in democratic processes, restrictions of virtual private networks (VPNs), censoring of mobile connectivity, attacks on online activists, as well as growing internet shutdowns. These obstructions and attacks impact on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but also create economic costs, affecting entire economies and individual businesses.

Moreover, governments are now regularly acquiring powerful surveillance technology from private firms, as Surveillance Industry Index shows. According to Privacy International, the surveillance industry routinely disregards human rights considerations, providing repressive regimes with capabilities often used for tracking of defenders. They believe that without proper legal mechanisms to restrain the flow of surveillance technology, this industry “will continue to undermine privacy and facilitate other human rights abuses, as well as undermine international security”. One example in 2017 was the Mexican government’s widespread spying on human rights defenders, through the use of NSO group’s spyware.

Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies’ policies and practices can also positively affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy, including those of defenders, especially when they work together. Ranking Digital Rights’ data shows that many of the top-scoring companies in 2017 were members of either the Global Network Initiative (GNI) or the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (TID), whose company members commit to uphold principles of freedom of expression and privacy. You can learn how ICT companies are upholding human rights online and offline here.

Our 2014 Briefing Paper on this sector highlights key human rights issues for ICT firms: censorship; surveillance; privacy; broadening access; supply chain impacts and children's rights. 

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