Edit/Op-Ed

Challenge of Protecting Human Rights in the Virtual World Beckons Civil Society

The COVID– 19 induced lockdown brought the real world to a standstill, bustling in the virtual world, however, increased like never before. As markets downed shutters e-commerce flourished, shutting of offices forced work from home, closure of schools led to online classes, restricted mobility compelled increased digital transactions and governments prioritised cash transfers to offer relief.

Digital platforms like Amazon, Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Zoom, etc. benefited hugely. Notwithstanding the recent gains, the virtual world has been expanding very fast both globally and nationally. Over 4.57 billion people now use the internet and almost half the world is on social media. Digital economy, ICT enabled, governance, and social media are impacting us economically, socially, and politically.

A distinctive architecture, changing technology and power dynamics of the virtual world pose unique challenges for human rights. The key challenges include; ensuring sovereign regulations, addressing inequality, enabling inclusion, protecting workers’ rights, safeguarding an individual’s privacy, and democratising digitisation. The situation demands a collective institutional response from the rights-based civil society organisations (CSOs).

Digital economy

The digital economy gives a unique opportunity to new and small businesses in terms of access to the global market. But it also has major exclusion issues, which are rooted in the advantage of global corporations that have established firm control over the digital economy.  Despite a huge scope to bring the Micro Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) online, only a small fraction is online in the developing world.

This is so because, the benefits of going online favour those firms, which are already industrious and well connected. The exclusion in the digital economy could be addressed by introducing regulations to enhance competition and fixing accountability. But global companies influence multilateral bodies like WTO to discourage such solutions by pushing for a permanent moratorium to deny state jurisdiction for these regulations. This situation impedes the inclusion of MSMEs. It also limits the scope for holding the corporations accountable for violation of workers’ rights in the digital economy. This dynamic is likely to reduce the revenues of developing countries like India as the flow of data across borders disregards duties imposed by governments. 

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and a Draft National Policy of the Union government on e-commerce (2019) echo concerns on some of these aspects and advocate similar State actions for their redress.  Stressing the issue of exclusion; both ask for sovereign jurisdictions to facilitate regulations for enabling a level playing field to vulnerable players like MSMEs.

The draft policy though silent on workers’ rights calls for sovereign jurisdictions to decide on import duty in order to protect States from revenue loss.  ITUC on the other hand, stresses on the protection of workers’ rights and demands a new social contract with a universal labour guarantee.

Rights of gig workers

Gig workers, who mostly operate as drivers and delivery persons are not considered employees. Instead, they are treated as contractors to a job or gig assigned on digital platforms and hence lose out on aspects like the security of tenure, fair wages, and right to form collectives. 

Research by the European Trade Union Institute shows steady growth over the past four years in discontent among workers who work for platform businesses. Countries like the USA, Canada, UK, and Australia have extended legislative protection for their rights. India has initiated statutory measures for social security benefits to gig workers by including them in the Draft Code of Social Protection, 2019.

Big data and artificial intelligence

There is a colossal spike in the generation of different types of data online along with rapid technological progress in its processing. Tech giants monetize big data by processing, analysing and using it for various purposes.

The global big data market is estimated to reach USD 103 billion by 2027, which is more than double its expected market size in 2018. Although big data is generated by people, its control is not under sovereign jurisdictions. Ownership and control of this data exponentially increase the wealth of the wealthiest companies.

They also use it to leverage their positions and interests with governments, multilateral organisations like WTO and corporates.  Governments often use this data for surveillance of their citizens in order to exercise maximum control; corporates use it for research and development towards a consumer society.

The high value of big data underscores the need for privacy, data protection, transparency, and accountability. For example, questions on the protection of AADHAR data and its alleged misuse are still raised. Breach of data security by popular platforms like Google, Facebook, and Zoom is well known.

The concern on data protection concerning Chinese Apps has been accentuated by the government of India to the extent of being biased toward national security and sovereignty.  Notwithstanding the euphoria, it substantiates that data is being used to jeopardies people’s interest and compromises their human rights.

The spurt in big data and its analytics is transforming work opportunities by accelerating the progress on Artificial Intelligence (AI). This connection has advanced data processing to revolutionary levels of mechanised problem solving leading to inventions like face recognition software and self-driving cars. The resultant automation is influencing employment in developed economies. Once it spreads in India, it will impact employment, especially of women and other marginalised groups.

Governance and service delivery

ICT enabled governance and delivery of basic services has been much debated in India. It is argued that it has improved access, expedited delivery, create transparency, and enhanced accountability.

On the other hand, there are evidences of exclusion, opaqueness, and lack of accountability. These are attributed to factors like inadequate tech infrastructure, mismatch in bio-metrics, and low digital literacy, particularly in rural areas and among under privileged communities.

Several NGOs provide useful feedback to the Government to address these issues; while a few even extend the technical support. ‘Digital Dialogue’ in Rajasthan and ‘Janta Information System’ in Kerala are examples of such initiatives.

Discussions in the UN General Assembly last year highlighted that digital delivery of public services in the absence of appropriate accountability regulations benefits the technology companies and the private sector contributing to the erosion of the welfare state.

The deliberations included the presentation of a report, titled, “Digital Welfare State”. The report observed that the digitization of welfare systems has very often been used to; promote deep reductions in the overall welfare budget, a narrowing of the beneficiary pool, the elimination of some services, the introduction of demanding and intrusive forms of conditionality and a complete reversal of the traditional notion that the State should be accountable to the individual. The report argues against assuming that technology reflects rational and efficient outcomes as such assumption risks forsaking human rights principles along with democratic decision making.   

Hate speech and suppression of dissent

Hate speech and fake news on social media besides calls to and celebration of violence against women, minorities, and other vulnerable groups are among the most serious threats to human rights. The role of ‘troll armies’ and ‘IT Cells’ in bullying the voices for a reason, democracy, secularism, and pluralism to hegemonies politics is well known. This dominance of a regressive ideology in cyber space accentuates the need for a counter-narrative.

Paradoxically, the repressive regimes which survive on hate speech and fake news apply the criteria of hate speech and fake news to control those who try to create a counter to their perspective. Although sections of civil society have engaged with this aspect; the nature of the challenge demands more depth and scale.

Impact of digital technologies on human rights

The role of digital technologies in deepening inequality; and the concerns of the distributional consequences of a digital economy were discussed in the UN General Assembly last year.

Underlining the implication of digital technologies on the whole spectrum of human rights the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, “The digital revolution is a major global human rights issue. Its unquestionable benefits do not cancel out its unmistakable risks”.

‘Digital Technologies” is among the five focus areas for the UN75 Initiative to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the UN this year.

Summing up

A world in cloud space having virtual identities of funds, functions, and functionaries including producers, aggregators, intermediaries, service providers, and consumers is fast growing.

Digital data is both the principal output and capital of this world. Initially visualized as a technology to enhance equity, it is now facing challenges of exclusion and inequality.

There is a need to strengthen the rights perspective in the virtual world, and CSOs have begun to respond to it. It is crucial to strengthen their engagement with different aspects of the virtual world, and their impact on human rights. The need to protect human rights in the virtual world is no less urgent than the real world.

Asadullah is with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability. The views expressed are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the position of CBGA. You can reach him at [email protected]

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