Column: Sharing the fight for our digital rights: – beyond diversity & inclusion

Nani Jansen Reventlowis the director of the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF), a grant-making organization that supports strategic litigation for (the adherence to) human rights in the digital sphere. SDM co-funded the project ‘Future-proofing our digital rights’. From DFF’s position as a node within an international network of organisations active within the space of digital rights, Nani shares her perspective on the future of this space.

Not a day goes by without another attempt to undermine the enjoyment of our basic rights in the digital sphere. Data breaches, unauthorized tracking of user behavior, misinformation and biased algorithms are rarely out of the news. At the same time, laws against online “hate speech” and measures to counter terrorism incentivise tech companies to censor our speech online.

With developments in technology happening at a rapid pace, law and policy often struggle to keep up, leaving those working to protect our rights in the digital sphere to adopt a reactive approach. So how can we get out ahead of the digital rights threats that might manifest themselves in five to ten years’ time?

We considered this question last September during our Future-proofing our digital rights workshop, a 2-day meeting of digital rights litigators and activists from across Europe.

Many positive future scenarios were identified, such as the potential of technology to help limit climate change or to free up more of our time; when imagining a future-proof “Universal Declaration of Digital Rights”, a shared reflection was how well our current human rights framework responds to emerging challenges, even after 70 years. We also discussed if we need to give a more expansive interpretation to those rights or perhaps even coin new ones. Do we need a right to disconnect, so we can choose to be offline and not be required to have a digital ID in order to access basic government services?

A commonly held misconception is that technology is neutral, but every piece of hardware and every piece of code, represents a myriad of choices. When the designers developing these solutions predominantly consist of white, privileged men, and the data sets are collected from a society that has engrained power imbalances, we run the risk of amplifying them.

One crucial aspect of resisting developments like these is having a watchdog that is capable of properly representing those most likely to be affected by negative impacts of technology on human rights. The digital rights civil society landscape in Europe currently is not in that position: it is composed in its majority of privileged groups and has a problem not too different from the diversity deficit in Silicon Valley’s overall makeup.

This needs to change urgently. Rather than speaking about diversity and inclusion – which, while well-intentioned, reinforces the idea that the current makeup of the field is valid and “others” should be brought in – we need to focus on decolonising the digital rights space. Only with a strong, fierce and resiliant digital rights field that spans across the many variations on identity, culture, and ability, can we make true progress towards not just equality but true equity in both the digital sphere and outside of it.

– Nani Jansen Reventlow

This column was originally published in Dutch in our annual report of 2018.