Getting to know your digital rights

Hanna Pishcyk

Twenty-four hours is the average amount of time per week each Internet user spends online. The statistics aside, it is practically self-evident in today’s hyperconnected world that being online takes up a significant part of our time and has a considerable impact on our lives. In 2016, aware of how embedded information and communications technologies (ICTs) are in people’s lives, the UN released a resolution recognizing access to the Internet a basic human right.

And that is where our digital rights start because until we are excluded from entering the digital environment due to infrastructure, affordability, or another issue, it is no use talking about any other digital right since access is essentially a perquisite. Meanwhile, this exclusion, even though temporary, can be a deliberate violation of an individual’s human rights by authorities, such as governments, as is the case with Internet shutdowns. Social or political instability, protests, elections, and school exams are only a few reasons for some governments to cut Internet access for a specific group of people or within a certain area. Moreover, according to Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), the global number of shutdowns is raising sharply, possessing threats not only to the right of Internet access, but also to those which the Internet facilitates.

At the same time, although infrastructure is crucial when connecting us to the Internet, it does not guarantee unlimited access to the information once we are online. Hence, Internet access is inextricably linked to the right of access to information, which is understood as the ability for an individual to seek, receive, and impart information effectively. Understandably this ability seems to be natural, and the process of seeking information effortless. But what if we speak about people with visual, cognitive, or mobility impairments? Is the Internet as inclusive of such individuals to navigate it without facing significant barriers?

How about native speakers of endangered languages? Would they benefit from the vast amount of online information if there is hardly any content available in their languages? We must also not forget Internet blocking as another urgent issue in the context of this right. Authorities assert to restrict or block information which poses a threat to public safety or national security, such as child abuse images, terrorism, or extremist content; however, these safeguarding concerns are often used as a cover to limit access to information on various political or social matters. 

Regarding the element of access to information as imparting information, it is worthwhile to consider another online human right: freedom of expression. The rapid development of online media has led us to creating and developing new online forms of expression, from social networks to video blogs, enabling end users to make their voices heard online and sometimes even influence decisions offline.

Meanwhile, the growing wave of hate speech and disinformation raises the question of where and at what grounds the line between censorship and freedom of expression should be drawn. In addition, it is important to remember that your online actions – whether it is creating posts and tweets, or sharing and liking content – can turn against you and lead to blocking, fines, or imprisonment even for something you posted online in the past. For this reason, it can be argued that online freedom of expression makes us more vulnerable and exposed. 

And that brings us to another important digital right: the right to privacy. With the digitalization of various spheres of our lives, we have more than even personal data being stored online – from our social media pages and e-banking accounts, to the biometric data that governments store.

Nevertheless, with all the benefits of this process, there comes a wide range of privacy threats and security risks. Some of them are data collection by governments, commercial entities, data brokers, or hackers, as well as data breaches and identity theft. Each of these actions can be used for different purposes, ranging from collecting your personal data to tracking your online behavior and using it to harm you. Recognizing the threats posed by these actions and a number of similar manipulations, many countries have national data privacy laws that regulate the data protection of their citizens. There could also be additional regulations on the sectorial level as well as, conversely, on the intergovernmental one – as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) stands as a notable example. 

Turning to GDPR, it is worth mentioning the Right to Be Forgotten as one of the most ambiguous rights under the regulation. The right is based on a pre-existing right to erasure and the newly adopted right to de-list emerging from the Google Spain case at the European Court of Justice. And if the first right, which allows a person to make a request for deleting their personal data from a server, is quite straightforward, the second one is more questionable. Under that right, users can ask search engine providers such as Google and Microsoft to exclude links to irrelevant events from their lives that can violate their privacy.

However, in the absence of a precise scope of compliance with this right, it may be misused and lead to censorship of the content that is relevant to the public interest, such as journalism, thereby undermining the right to freedom of expression and access to information.

All in all, your digital rights do not end with the abovementioned rights, and there are other, equally important ones, such as copyright – one of the most violated online rights that is now confronted by copyleft supporters. What is important to bear in mind, though, is that on the Internet, as in any other complex and multifaceted system, rights go along with responsibilities and challenges that we should embrace rather than ignore.