By Eduardo Ferreyra
The line between digital and traditional human rights is getting blurrier. As technology pervades every aspect of daily life, it’s difficult to separate the digital from the analog. This oversaturation of technology affects not just our social relationships and access to mountains of information, but it has significant implications for the sustainment of democracy, too.
For instance, facial recognition and other surveillance technologies can affect how comfortable people feel protesting in public spaces. This statement may seem obvious to those in the human rights and democracy communities, but it doesn’t necessarily comport with the activities of many human rights organizations around the world. Despite examples like this, there is still a divergence of focus and coordination between digital and traditional rights groups. Traditional rights groups, busy confronting other, more well-known challenges, hesitate to commit their resources to combatting technology-based threats to democracy. At the same time, digital rights groups lack the resources to branch out and aid traditional rights groups effectively.
The disconnect between both communities undermines the ability to confront digital threats to human rights worldwide. The full scope of the threats to fundamental rights is obscured, and advocacy activities are hampered by the absence of coordination and communication. Consequently, civil society organizations (CSOs) miss valuable opportunities to counter authoritarianism collaboratively—and more effectively.
Drawing on my experience defending human rights in digital environments in Argentina and Latin America, I’ve noticed that understanding between traditional and digital rights communities has improved but there is still work to do. Whether it’s because they’re speaking a different “language” or because they cannot find common initiatives to work on, I think collaboration is not as effective as it could be. Fortunately, there are ways to bridge this divide.
Perspectives of traditional human rights organizations
Traditional human rights organizations may hesitate to address digital threats due to a lack of technological knowledge and the persistent attention required by traditional threats to human rights.
Understanding how constantly evolving and modernizing digital technologies work is hard, but it’s necessary to fully know how they can endanger fundamental rights online and offline. Recognizing how an algorithm may produce biased outcomes and identifying the shortcomings—and potential risks—of an overreliance on facial recognition technology is central to defending human rights from web-based threats. Digital rights groups overcome this obstacle by imbedding information technology (IT) experts within their staffs so that they can work hand-in-hand to confront these challenges. If traditional organizations don’t have people with this expertise, it’s very likely that they will remain hesitant to address digital issues. Though hiring technologists would be beneficial for traditional human rights groups, it’s not the only way to address this problem. Smaller human rights organizations can benefit from digital rights groups’ technical expertise on a particular topic (e.g., flaws in facial recognition software). For instance, the latter can use traditional groups’ insights on how a particular criminal justice system operates when reviewing the use of a facial recognition system by the police.
Many traditional human rights groups were founded decades ago with focus a on issues that are still relevant today. In Latin America, my home region, many organizations dedicated their work to fight against autocratic abuses in the 1970s and 80s. Although most of the region’s countries are now democracies, authoritarianism remains a serious concern. Currently, democratic institutions and rule of law norms are being dismantled gradually from within through the erosion of electoral systems in countries such as Brazil and Nicaragua, and through a spate of other, digitally-based threats. These digitally-based threats are often overlooked as traditional human rights organizations remain focused, not without reason, on other challenges to democracy. This singular focus, though, is ultimately short-sighted and ineffective. Working in such a hyper-focused mindset prevents CSOs from expanding their operations to engage with new phenomena like digital technologies.
Perspectives of digital rights organizations
Insufficient resources and divergent objectives may dissuade digital rights groups from working with the traditional human rights community.
Generally, with a few exceptions, traditional human rights groups are larger and have access to greater human resources than their digital rights counterparts. This fact alone is an obstacle for digital rights organizations to create coalitions with external allies. In addition, much of their resources are dedicated to targeting both government agencies as well as social media companies or surveillance technology manufacturers. This private sector-based approach differs from the work of those traditional organizations that only target the state. Also, digital threats to human rights are not primarily debated at a national level. Technology transcends borders, and there are different international spaces (e.g., Internet Governance Forum and RightsCon) where this issue is frequently discussed among digital rights defenders worldwide. Thus, digital rights groups are more likely to connect with counterparts from other countries rather than colleagues from within their own country’s human rights community, lessening the opportunities for the two communities to collaborate.
Data exploitation by private and public actors is currently one of the most pressing issues for digital activists. Any initiative to counteract this threat will require engagement with data protection authorities, the main bodies in charge of applying data protection laws. If digital rights groups want to address the danger of content moderation by big platforms, they must consider the role platform competition and consumer authority play in this space. These bodies differ from national courts or international human rights mechanisms, with which the human rights community usually engages. This divergence of objectives and target audiences further discourages the creation of coalitions.
Strategies to bridge the gap
Despite these challenges, collaboration is not only possible but necessary and useful for both digital and traditional human rights groups. Below are potential strategies to bridge the gap between the two communities:
- Joining together in strategic litigation: Engaging jointly with state legal systems to uphold human rights may strengthen collaboration between both communities. Usually, strategic litigation involves complex legal cases where various fundamental rights are affected. Therefore, each group can contribute their own expertise to the lawsuit by focusing on aspects of the case in which they are knowledgeable. Buenos Aires’ facial recognition system is informative. A locally-based digital rights group—Argentine Computer Law Observatory (ODIA)—submitted a constitutional challenge to the system with the support of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a traditional human rights organization founded in 1979 during the last military dictatorship. While ODIA focused on the bias of facial recognition technology, CELS stressed the lack of oversight on Buenos Aires’ system. A judge ruled this system to be unconstitutional and ordered public authorities to establish oversight mechanisms with the participation of the Buenos Aires Legislature and its Ombudsperson prior to redeploying it. (The ruling was appealed by the government of Buenos Aires, and the decision by the appellate court is still pending.)
- Commission studies on emerging digital rights topics: If traditional organizations want to address the impact of technology on human rights, commissioning digital rights organizations to explore an issue relevant to their work is a great starting point. For instance, in 2018, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) commissioned Privacy International (PI) to study where surveillance may obstruct or threaten the impartial and independent nature of humanitarian action. Such studies may also contain recommendations for future actions either community can undertake.
- Keeping tabs on elections: A digital rights organization may focus on disinformation about candidates that is spread via social media or online political advertising while their traditional counterparts may analyze the impact money has on elections and politics. Another form of collaboration may be found in the Carter Center’s expert mission to assess 2022 Kenya’s presidential election. The Center examined the role of technology in said election with the assistance from Privacy International on data protection issues.
- Promoting education, exchange, and training programs: Both communities should create joint fellowship programs providing digital rights defenders the opportunity to work in traditional human rights organizations, and vice versa. As part of this exchange, activists from either community should undergo an intense training program that exposes them to the main topics of interest for the host organization. Consequently, fellows will have the ability to add digital or traditional perspectives to their home organization’s operations when they return. For example, Ford Foundation partnered with the social impact firm Reboot to launch a technology fellows program. This initiative is designed to foster greater interaction between the technology and social justice fields by recruiting fellows with experience in both areas to join Ford’s program teams for two years. The program allows fellows to share their knowledge and create new relationships with and networks for their respective teams.
Digital rights groups must be more open to share their knowledge and expertise to better address the hesitation non-digital groups have in engaging with complex technological issues. At the same time, traditional human rights organizations should realize that the field of “digital rights” is not an isolated realm and must strive to integrate a digital perspective into their operations.
Technology’s increasing role in society is undeniable. Whether you’re working on it from the perspective of human rights or digital rights, everyone has a role to play. And, sometimes, that role is a shared one.
Eduardo Ferreyra is a project leader at Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, a civil society organization based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work focuses on managing projects on technology and human rights. He holds a Degree in Law from the National University of Tucumán and an LL.M. in Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America from the National University of San Martín. Follow him on Twitter @ferreyraedu.
The views expressed in this post represent the opinions and analysis of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff. Image Credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock.com.