Generational Change and Digital Human Rights

This week, returning to the literature review, I researched digital self-determination and children’s rights on the Internet.


If most people were to think of applying the human right of self-determination to the Internet, they would probably think of digital democracy, that is, all the ways Internet use can help elections become more participatory, more informed, more free—or even take place at all. While this is an important role for the Internet, there is a concept of self-determination yet more germane do Internet use.


In the early and mid 1990s, Internet use, even in developed countries, was something more like AM radio. It was for enthusiasts and knowledge-seekers, and companies and governments had not yet realized its advantages; pioneers like Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, and PayPal changed this. However, the ‘promise of the Internet’ was one of an “open, free, global, interoperable” Internet. (A Declaration for the Future of the Internet, U.S. Dep’t of State: Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (Apr. 29, 2022)). From governments, concepts of national Internet and combating disinformation, and from businesses, efforts to corner customers into non-interoperable systems of IP through horizontal diversification both can threaten this idea.


The critical idea behind digital self-determination is that of agency and governance: Internet users have a right to choose the software and hardware they use, the websites they access, and the way they will engage with the Internet. Digital self-determination therefore has a distinctly anti-trust flavor. Calls in the U.S. to regulate big tech have not been made in a vacuum; rather, they are supported by both historical attitudes about the Internet and by now a decade of writings on digital human rights.


Children’s rights on the Internet are generally thought of in terms of protection from exploitation or abuse. This mission is very important; however, it is not the only right children have in relation to the Internet. Children enjoy the same rights to information, expression, thought, etc. as adults, however their engagement with the Internet should be more finely tuned to account for their state of development. UNICEF documents advocate governance rights for children in line which transpose this need onto the right of digital self-determination. Because education is essential for children, rights to Internet access and to education become more urgent. Good policy on children’s rights ensures the integrity of the future workforce and voting public.


At the ICT Camp, I asked participants, who were mostly college-age, when they first had regular access to the Internet. Most had no access until they were 18. This age group in Cambodia therefore stands in contrast not only to their peers in the U.S., but to increasing numbers of teenagers in Phnom Penh today. Smartphone use in Cambodia nearly doubled from 2018 to 2020. While much of Gen Y in the developed world acquired some form of digital literacy in their youth, Gen Z is the first generation in the developed world to experience the Internet in its current form. In Cambodia and other developing countries, this experience may be brought to youths even before the next generation.