In the space of just a few years, the human rights movement has crashed into a technological, social and moral wall. The true impacts of serious violations of our personal digital rights are starting to hit very close to home for a lot of people, and the world will never be the same.
The revelations put forward by Edward Snowden on the scale and reach of the United States’ surveillance capability, whistleblowing by Chelsea Manning that blew the lid off military manipulation, corruption and coercion, the exposure of mass-manipulation of democratic elections by Cambridge Analytica - all of these have certainly contributed to a heightened awareness of the potential impact of digital rights. But these high-profile incidents are just scratching the surface of a much wider, systematic and willful degradation of our human rights online.
The internet is often touted as the new frontier of freedom of expression, described simultaneously as a wide open plain free from heavy-handed intervention - or a lawless landscape that political leaders struggle to understand and fail to police. The pervasive rise of personal digital technology offers the potential to realise many human rights. Vast amounts of our lives now take place online, including paid employment, participating in democracy and communicating with government and with each other.
This can be liberating: it is possible to engage with the internet anonymously, to communicate secretly and access services and communities that allow us to be ourselves, without fear of judgement. But there is also a dark side to life in the digital age that includes surveillance of populations, tracking of individual movements or conversations and data-matching on a global scale. It’s clear that corporate and government power over our digital lives need to be kept in check.
Digital rights are inherent human rights. And just as other human rights are far from inalienable, digital rights must be fought for, solidified into social normality and ultimately protected and upheld if we are to maintain our humanity in digital spaces.
Every public space is subject to regulation, just like every human right involves some form of balancing with other rights. How do we make the most of what digital life offers, allowing the free and open exchange of ideas, whilst also ensure that adequate protections are put in place? An unregulated internet is not the same as a free and open one. To create inclusiveness online, and create accountability for abuse and harassment, we need rules of conduct and designers who are sensitive to the experience of vulnerable people.
Upholding digital rights requires us to find the balance between the opportunity the internet provides us to live better, brighter and more interconnected lives, and the threat, posed by trolls, corporations and government. Ideally it will involve law making that includes educated community participation and generates nuanced public debate.
This report aims to support, enhance and promote that debate, through analysing a select few of the key digital rights issues facing Australians today, and making clear recommendations for policy makers to adopt. A critical step towards upholding our human rights in a technological age is to understand that digital rights are human rights that are expressed online. We must protect these rights, whatever the cost.