What are digital rights?

What are digital rights?

Coconet II Camp Digital Rights
At Coconet II, 120 film-makers, researchers, human rights advocates, technologists, lawyers, academics, and journalists across the region working on issues such as disinformation, fake news, digital security among others.

Oftentimes, the simplest one-sentence reply to the question, “What are digital rights?”, is “human rights in the digital environment”, or “human rights that are enabled through technology and the internet”.

While human rights have been more clearly defined through the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and translated into various legally binding laws, the same cannot be said for the terms “digital”, “technology”, or the “internet”. In unpacking these terms, we’ll find the interpretations vary much more widely.

For example, the term digital is often conflated with online or the internet. But not everything digital is always connected to the internet. Biometric data, such as facial recognition and fingerprint checking at border crossings, is one example of how the digital may not be online or connected to the internet.

Meanwhile, the term technology, especially the shorthand version tech, in recent decades is often equated to digital technologies, frequently neglecting and undervaluing analogue tech along with their interrelations. (Try typing in “tech” on your search engine, and see how the majority of the results point to digital tech.) Or, sometimes, it’s the other way around, especially after feeling overwhelmed by decades of digital deluge. A common example is how vinyl records and printed books are often romanticised as being more genuine and authentic than their digital counterparts.

Exploring definitions, challenging assumptions

During the Coconet II digital rights camp in October last year, we asked 120 changemakers to define digital rights in the Asia-Pacific context. Unsurprisingly, they came up with a variety of definitions:

  • Digital rights are the exercise of universal human rights in digital spaces.
  • Digital rights are the right to express yourself in a safe, private, secure, and sustainable digital space.
  • Digital rights are fundamental and inherited human rights that promote inclusion, equality, access to infrastructure, and information. Digital rights ensure control, autonomy, and agency of humans while protecting against the privatisation, monopolisation, and monetisation of humanity.
  • Digital rights are fundamental human rights in the digital environment. It is about free speech or expression, association and assembly, access to internet devices, rights and access to information, access to platforms (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and more), online safe space, security and safety, privacy and data protection, gender-responsiveness and anti-discrimination, and equality.
  • Digital rights are a set of universal human rights that ensures everybody – regardless of their gender, age, race, sexuality, and more – has equal access to an open internet that is governed in an inclusive, accountable, and transparent manner to ensure peoples’ fundamental freedoms and rights.
  • Digital rights are human rights online which allow access to information and freedom of expression in a safe space that respects privacy and security.
  • Digital rights are human rights which are inherent for ICT (information and communications technology) users and non-users. They ensure access to equal rights to information, technology, and knowledge; being free from violence, surveillance and discrimination; and respects privacy, autonomy and self-determination.
  • Digital rights are human rights online that concern access, participation, data security, and privacy, with the human-centred values of dignity, respect, equality, justice, responsibility, consent, and environmental sustainability.
  • Digital rights empower humans over companies and should encourage equal and just participation.

These answers from Coconet II echo the one-sentence reply that we often hear about human rights in the digital environment mentioned at the beginning of this article. They also show how, unlike the clearly defined and legally binding human rights, the interpretations of the terms digital, internet, and technology vary considerably, with digital sometimes equated with being online or connected to the internet.

Another pair of terms that often get mixed up is “real” and “virtual”, which imply that physical interactions are more “real” than digital, “virtual” interactions. But if we’re making that assumption, are we saying that all digital interactions are not real? And what is the implication of this assumption? Does it imply that “virtual” spaces and online harassment are not “real”? And, consequently, are all physical interactions always real? Is the boundary between online and offline always clearly defined, or do they influence and implicate each other?

These are some seemingly simple but tricky questions to answer. We can already identify some pertinent terms often paired as binary opposites – though I’d prefer to put them at opposite ends of a spectrum. For instance: online – offline; digital – analog or physical; real – virtual.

Of course, all these definitions and assumptions are open for discussion. This article does not aim to give a comprehensive answer. Rather, it aims to challenge our assumptions and explore the complexities and intricacies in defining digital rights, knowing that there is a diversity of definitions that can arise.

Defend Digital Rights

Check out Coconet.social/Camps to find out more about how changemakers in the Asia-Pacific are fighting for digital rights.

Identifying and conceptualising frameworks

Indeed, there are various global, regional, and local initiatives that expound on digital rights’ various elements. For example, there are the APC Internet Rights Charter and the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet by the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition at the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Both Charters outline how human rights standards should be interpreted to apply to the online environment.

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms is a region-wide declaration that elaborates the principles necessary to uphold people’s rights on the internet, cultivating an online environment that can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals. In 2015, civil society in the Philippines promulgated the Philippine Declaration on Internet Rights and Principles, a crowdsourced declaration that reflects the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of Filipinos of what their internet should be.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2015 in fact identified more than 50 Internet-specific declarations and frameworks. Within the same year, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society Research, identified 30 such constitutions and a list of 42 rights, categorising them into seven themes. Across these frameworks, freedom of expression, privacy rights, and the right to access the internet were the three prominent themes most often featured. Other important themes were freedom of information, transparency, and openness of internet governance processes and networks.

Proposing four spheres of digital rights

Jun-E Tan, a Coconet II participant from Malaysia who has been doing research on digital rights in a number of countries in Southeast Asia, has pointed out how some studies or documents on digital rights have chosen to expediently narrow down their scope to “to the top two to three rights and to move along with their analytical work or practical advocacy”. But without a conceptualising framework, she says, we risk foregoing or excluding important rights at the expense of including only prominent ones.

In a 2019 research paper about digital rights in Southeast Asia, Jun-E proposed to expand the conceptualisation of digital rights by thinking in four spheres:

  1. through viewing the digital as a space/spaces and thus digital rights as a translation of conventional rights to digital spaces;
  2. through viewing the digital as data representation of physical entities, therefore focusing digital rights on data security and privacy;
  3. access to digital spaces and meaningful participation; and
  4. participation in the governance of the digital or the Internet.

Table from Jun-E's 2019 paper, "Exploring the Nexus Between Technologies and Human Rights: Opportunities and Challenges in Southeast Asia".

Of course, Jun-E’s framework is not the only valid one, and her proposed framework was built from research in selected countries in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. (For more on the intricacies and challenges in conceptualising digital rights in the Southeast Asian context, we encourage you to check out her research.)

As has been stressed throughout this article, there are numerous ways by which we can frame digital rights, particularly with respect to different contexts and experiences in the Asia-Pacific region.  Hopefully, by sharing the above definitions from members of the Coconet community, we can contribute to building strategies and movements for digital rights – and rethinking what we’re including and excluding in defining the boundaries of digital rights. If you have more ideas or suggestions, please get in touch.

About the Author

Kathleen Azali is the Digital Rights Program Manager of EngageMedia. She is an activist-researcher whose work intersects the fields of information, technology, design, and political economy.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the Coconet community, EngageMedia, APC, or their funders. Copyright of the article is held by the author(s) of each article. Check out our Contribution Guidelines for more information. Want to translate this piece to a different language? Contact us via this form. This publication is licensed with Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.