Digital Human Rights, or Human Rights on the Internet?

I spent most of this week mapping out human rights in relation to the Internet. This is a developing field, with little precedent, largely the domain of policy, guidance, and best practices. Some of the biggest technological forces in 2022's data privacy law, such as smartphones and AI, only approached their current level of sophistication a decade ago. Law and policy could not immediately follow technological innovations; first, businesses strategies had to be developed and social patterns had to become evident. The GDPR, whose effects are instantly recognizable to American users encountering European cookie policy pop-ups, is still only 8 years old.

International discussion of Internet policy in the human rights field is laudable in that it has mimicked one of the principle benefits of the Internet: there has been a lot of discussion, and many stakeholders have been included or considered. However, discussion is to some extent decentralized, reflecting the oft-lamented problem of "fragmentation" in international law. The early stage of digital jurisprudence, fast-evolving technologies and their patterns of use, and seeming limitless rounds of discussions, all make it hard to discern the concrete impacts of the policies that have been adopted. Another problem, much easier to resolve, is inconsistent use of terms. One example is "digital human rights" vs. "human rights on the Internet."

My research has led me to identify two primary groups of human rights relative to the Internet: those rights that can be enjoyed online by the 'digital twin,' or which would not exist in their fundamental form but for the Internet, and those rights that are enjoyed by the offline person, but are enhanced or threatened by Internet use. Even this dichotomy is subject to debate--is the digital twin (the collection of personal data that forms an identity online, or a footprint large enough to allow predictive analysis) a separate entity from the physical legal person, or is it an extension of that person? What is the legal status of PII (personally identifiable information)--or for that matter, of valuable data that is neither a trade secret nor news?

Returning to the two groups of human rights, it appears that the central rights are those of the first group. This begins with the almost universally recognized right to online privacy. Online privacy is largely a different phenomenon than offline privacy, because PII such as name or image (at least, the mere sight of someone) is not generally considered private offline, but can be immensely powerful when collected and used as data in the digital world. Nothing is forgotten in the digital world if it is not deleted; therefore, online privacy becomes a different sort of question than offline privacy. Around the privacy right revolve the various thought and speech rights (e.g. to "information," "thought," "expression," "association") which are similarly affected. While terms are often used interchangeably, the contexts in which I have seen "digital human rights" leads me to believe that this term should be used to mean these informational rights.

The second group of human rights that exist in relation to the Internet, those enjoyed primarily offline, include many of the social, cultural, and economic rights. Labor rights, rights to conservation, physical and mental health, education, adequate standards of living, and others are all enjoyed offline. It is readily apparent that they can all be greatly improved or endangered through Internet use. In reality, these two groups of rights form two poles on a spectrum. For example, freedom of movement, self-determination, and protections of children exist somewhere in between the right to online privacy and environmental human rights, in their degree of entanglement with the Internet. For this group, I would use "human rights on the Internet," a term found in UN documents (e.g. A/HRC/38/L.10/Rev.1 and A/HRC/47/L.22) which refer to this much broader array of rights.

I concluded the week by looking at the Internet's relationship with human rights surrounding the environment. Most discussions have focused on the environmental effects of increasing access to the Internet: higher rates of power consumption (on which cryptocurrency mining has had a horrible effect), destructive mining practices and depletion of rare earths in electronics production, and electronic waste. Positive outcomes include the use of big data and all the most cutting edge forms of analytics to better understand environmental science, environmental impacts past, present, and future, form new policy such as sustainable development initiatives, organize and communicate solutions and advocacy. It is too early in my research on this topic to form conclusions, but I believe that, though it may seem a slightly rarified corner of the policy world, there is good potential for growth and innovation, and I will be delighted to learn more.




This is a structure on the grounds of Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple by the Mekong River. When legal theory runs the risk of getting too granular, it helps to take a break in a quiet, green place.