Digital Rights and Internet Governance, a Human-centered conversation needed

, by Jesús Cordero

Digital Rights and Internet Governance, a Human-centered conversation needed
Credits: JEF-Madrid

A report of JEF-Madrid’s project ‘Digital Rights, what do you mean?’, part of JEF Europe 2021 Internet Governance work program.

During the last twenty years, technological development has crystallised in the emergence of so-called digital technologies. These technologies are changing fundamental aspects of the creation and organisation of production, distribution and consumption, and with them new forms of social relations and communication.

Since the origin of civilizations until the second half of the 18th century, the progress of humanity in the field of science and technology had developed without disruptions that would significantly alter social, political and economic orders. Since the 1960’s, the reality has been different.

There is a debate about whether the period we are currently living through is part of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or part of the Third. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the introduction of digital technology into society over the last half century has generated huge interconnected networks, fundamentally changing the way we organise our economic, political and social lives.

In our development, both at a social and economic level, the digital transformation of society is already a reality. However, the impact that an undue use of large sets of personal data collected, thanks to information technologies, can have on the privacy, reputation, health, and even dignity of the human being, is considerable. Nowadays, our most valuable asset is data, a gold no longer made of minerals but of zeros and ones, which has created an additional reality that is neither sensory nor physical.

Therefore, the human being must articulate instruments that allow them to evolve in their use and development in order to guarantee that users retain control over their own data (and hence, over their own rights).

The task of a State is to satisfy the interests and needs of its population, that is, to fulfil their expectations. This idea is not new: one of the articles of the Cadiz Constitution of 1812 (the first in Spain and the third in the world) dictates that ‘the object of the Government is the happiness of the Nation, since the aim of any political society is none other than the well-being of the individuals who compose it’. Henceforth, states of the 21st century, immersed in this context of profound technological, economic, social and cultural transformations, must provide their citizens with the tools that allow them to develop their life projects with a reasonable level of security and confidence in the system.

Therefore, we need to think about what position we want to take as citizens of an increasingly digital society and what rights we want to protect, in order to define our role in a scenario where data means everything; where it can be modeled and processed at unprecedented volumes that I would dare to call unimaginable. For that reason, on Friday, December 3, 2021, more than 55 young people gathered in the Congress of Deputies (Spanish Parliament). They received training and made proposals for better regulation and implementation of digital rights, through the methodology of creative thinking, in an event organized by JEF Madrid in collaboration with Generations for Health. This activity was part of JEF Europe’s Internet Governance project, supported by the Europe for Citizens Program of the European Commission and the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe.

In order to define the role we wish to play, we need to know what the subject is about, hence the name of our national roundtable: ‘Digital Rights, what do you mean?’. The idea was to bring this conversation closer to as many groups and profiles of people as possible. To that end, we gathered young people from universities, vocational training centers and active workers with senior professionals. Additionally, we also aimed to make the debate accessible to minorities, so that we have representation of Latin migrants, the LGTBQ+ community, and Romani people. The goal, in the end, was to sit at a table as diverse and broad as possible, not only to listen, but to be listened to and to create. Because the more we talk about digital rights, which are human rights in their digital aspect, the more awareness can be generated to promote change and ensure that people can fully enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms both online and offline.

The guest speaker of the event was Leonardo Cervera, director of the Office of the European Data Protection Supervisor, who explained the risks of new technologies, and stated that digital humanism must prevail: ‘New technologies must enhance human dignity and autonomy’.

As well as this, we had Miguel Gutiérrez representing the Spanish Parliament, spokesman for the Ciudadanos Parliamentary Group (Renew Europe) in the Interior and Defense Committees. He recalled that ‘in a context of recovery after the COVID-19 crisis and in which we have available such a powerful source of funding as the Next Generation EU package, we are clear that the priority must be to promote this Spanish and European digital ecosystem in a way that protects and defends the autonomy of the individual and, of course, his or her rights and freedoms’. After receiving brief training on the state of digital rights in Spain, the only country in the world together with France to regulate this aspect, the participants were divided into six tables. Each of them focused on three of the 19 rights that are recognized in the Charter of Digital Rights: Protection of minors on the internet; digital disconnection; and digital education.

The table related to the protection of minors on the internet raised the need to teach emotional education at primary and secondary education levels in order to empower students in emotional health, digital rights, and the protection of the right to dignity and privacy on the internet.

In the digital education group, the participants considered that the digitalization of society cannot, and should not, dehumanize the world. Therefore, they proposed the implementation of humanistic digital education and an improvement of voice dictation tools to ensure greater inclusion of all types of people in all sectors. Another proposal was the inclusion of a digital counselor to guide the citizen when carrying out administrative procedures through the network. In the digital disconnection discussion groups, the participants proposed the prohibition of dismissal for not attending to work matters outside working hours or the inclusion of measures to encourage disconnection. They also proposed the creation of a psychological evaluation service and a system for monitoring mental health in the workplace.

Our common challenge, which began with this citizen panel, is to create a space where this conversation can go deeper, the report with the ideas and proposals defined by citizens will be forwarded both to the Spanish Parliament, the Spanish Data Protection Agency, the National Observatory of Technology and Society, as well as the European Union. Not only that, but more actions will come in the coming year in this framework initiative, as a website where all citizens can access training resources and comprehensive explanations of each digital right both in English and Spanish.

Furthermore, during the first semester of 2022 we plan to host a second multi-stakeholder conference where academia, private and public sector can provide feedback on these 3 years of digital rights implementation in Spain, the ideas provided by our citizen panel, and next steps needed. The recommendations and measures defined would be shared in cooperation with the EU Youth Coordination and the European Youth Portal, among other stakeholders, to serve as a recommendation for other European countries that want to start regulating digital rights.

Last but not least, it is convenient to mention that the mental health impact of digital technologies were so important to both our citizen’s panel and the participants of the last EU survey - they ranked mental health as third in the top priorities for the European Year of Youth. Hence, we will have a specific space for defining proposals for a safe and healthy exercise of our digital rights, and the prevention of mental health related problems regarding the use of digital tools, through collaboration with other relevant stakeholders such as the regional center for prevention of technology addiction.

In conclusion, this project aims to put us citizens at the center of a deep reflection on how we want to better implement the digital rights that we have given ourselves. That is, how we want to define the digital society that current and future technological realities force us to develop. Although new technologies have brought us many benefits, they also come with risks to the function of society, our rights and liberties, and our mental and physical health. We need to make sure that people are at the center of new proposals and advancements so that no one is left behind. It is up to us to be, and to have, our own voice, without echoing anyone else. We are creating a space for us to learn and be heard - let’s put it to good use.

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