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Investigating the evolving discourses on human rights in the digital age

By: Tanmay Kumar* & Runjhun Sharma^ |


We are in a period of profound societal change and disruption, almost a tectonic shift, brought on by the rapid expansion of digital communication infrastructure and exponential adoption of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT). The sharing of information on digital platforms has become a natural and unquestioned feature of modern life. Online services like social media and business platforms are growing rapidly. It has come to define our day-to-day lives in ways unimaginable just a decade ago.

The digital world is a very powerful place for more inclusive democratic discourse, participation, and policy-making. A free and open internet implies easy and uninterrupted access to data, information, culture and training, in addition to other things, and it can likewise facilitate the exercise of fundamental rights. By doing so, concepts like freedom of expression and association have been given a whole new meaning, empowering the inherent, and given rights of individuals towards maximizing the general happiness of our societies. At the same time, digitalisation comes with new challenges.

A world in which even a car is a computer and household devices are connected to the internet (the so-called “internet of things”) will be a very different place. Data has become a ubiquitous yet almost imperceptible part of our daily lives. Every one of our interactions with technology, from tapping a debit card in a convenience store to liking a Facebook post, adds to the near-limitless store of information generated by and about us. This rapid change in the interaction between ICT and society brings with it a wide range of new human rights risks and ethical dilemmas, especially for how to protect and promote freedom of expression and privacy online. The management of these risks will affect the lives of billions of ICT users all around the world.

Digital age: A risk to Human Rights?

The Internet has become an indispensable tool for the realization of a range of human rights, and for accelerating economic development. Yet, every day, there are new examples of how digital technologies play a role in undermining human rights. The virtual world has evolved way beyond our imagination. The technology is helping students, company workers, and other people all over the world in various ways during this COVID-19 lockdown. At times when it is impossible for students to go to schools and colleges and for a company to call its employees for work, the digital world provides them with features like online classes and meetings through video conferences and work from home. Moreover, the concept of webinars has also gained immense popularity during the lockdown.

One of the video conferencing applications, Zoom, has gained a lot of popularity during this time but recently it also had to go through a rough patch when it started getting bombarded with trolls and hackers. It has been sued on account of various accusations like the invasion of privacy, data leak, breach of security protocols, etc. which led to many classes and meetings getting interrupted by porn videos, racist messages, and Nazi symbols. This has led many educational institutions and companies into banning the use of the application for professional uses.

Over 500,000 Zoom accounts were sold on the dark web and other hacker forums for less than a penny each. It could also force Mac users that have (or ever had) Zoom installed on their device to join Zoom meetings with their cameras automatically activated. Above all this, a lot of data collected by Zoom is being sent to Facebook which itself has suffered a setback in 2018 when it was discovered that at least 50 million users’ data was confirmed at risk after hackers got access to their personal data by exploiting a vulnerability.

These acts are in clear violation of an individual’s Right to Privacy which is a basic Human Right as suggested by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. All human rights are indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated: the improvement of one right facilitates the advancement of the others; the deprivation of one right adversely affects others. Freedom of expression and Privacy are explicit parts of this international framework of human rights and are enabling rights that facilitate the meaningful realization of other human rights.

The recent “Boys Locker Room” incident in which a few adolescent Indian boys were caught sharing obscene messages, morphed pictures of minor girls, passing lewd comments on an Instagram group, depicts the ills of the advancement of digitalisation. On one hand, the internet acts as a platform to promote freedom of expression and free speech, while on the other, it also leads people into committing heinous acts like delivering hate speech and objectifying women.

Such incidents lead to parents restricting their children from using social media platforms. Women and children are more exposed to online harassment, persecution, and sexual exploitation than men. People are being exposed to illicit content like nudity (including child pornography) at a very young age. This amounts to the violation of the right to be free from gendered violence and the right to life. The vulnerability of women and children need immediate action.

According to Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Also, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights purports that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary and or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence or to unlawful attacks upon his honour and reputation" going on to state that everyone has a right to be protected by the law against any such interference.

Another case where digitalisation led to increasing concern in people’s minds regarding their right to privacy which has also been given a Fundamental Right status in the Indian Constitution under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, i.e., Right to life and Personal liberty after the K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India landmark judgement in 2017; was raised when the Indian government introduced Aadhaar card. Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch showed concern regarding the Indian government's mandatory biometric identification project Aadhaar. They warned that it could lead to millions of people being denied access to essential services and also raised serious concerns about violations of the right to privacy.

The government intended for Aadhaar to be the primary identification number for all legal Indian residents. In order to apply for the card, a resident must submit their biometric data, which includes a scan of their fingerprints and retinas. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is responsible for storing the data in a centralized database. The Government progressively made the Aadhaar Card mandatory for numerous welfare schemes like subsidized food under the Public Distribution System, Mid-Day Meal Scheme and guaranteed wage labor under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The Aadhaar scheme was challenged by Justice K.S. Puttaswamy on the grounds of safeguard of privacy. Although the Supreme Court of India struck down some of its provisions, but declared that as a whole, it does not breach the right to privacy. Still, there have been several allegations about the breach of Aadhaar data. For instance, if an operator saved a copy of a user’s biometric fingerprints on his computer, he could transact on the user’s behalf by using the fingerprint stored on his computer. This raised concern for people as they had to mandatorily give away their biometrics and other personal details whose security was not yet certain.


Now-a-days, it has become very easy for modern technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to violate privacy, polarize societies, and incite prejudice, extremism, racism, hatred, and violence across the globe in a short span of time. Any breach in the data security protocols can create opportunities for blackmail and influence political processes. Digital technologies put a risk to privacy. The development in the field of AI has tremendously enhanced electronic surveillance and interception which can be used for legitimate purposes like national security and business interests but it also needs to be balanced against a basic right to privacy. How can the latter be ensured without undermining the former? United Nations (UN) and other such International agencies should help state parties implement data-protection treaties and laws to ensure that anyone, be it the government, non-state actors, or companies cannot misuse the personal information of their citizens.

People are demanding to make AI developers subject to the law and ethical values. The individuals who create and utilize AI for political or business or war purposes must be considered responsible for their activities. So, the individuals who create or use AI should likewise be considered liable for the outcomes of their choices. The risk of these activities turns out to be more critical when such self-sufficient weapon frameworks are utilized in infringement of worldwide human rights and humanitarian laws.

The UN Secretary-General stated in 2018 that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law”. As we live in an age of digital interdependence, all the institutions like the governments, citizens, human rights defenders, and AI companies should work together to enhance the protection of human rights in the digital world. Common human values like privacy, equality, dignity, freedom, inclusiveness, respect, and sustainability should be preserved. These human values must serve as a flare to guide our conduct in the digital age.

Defenders of human rights and democracy need to acknowledge these challenges as a priority. International courts, tribunals, and national courts, for example, should interpret international human rights conventions and national fundamental rights laws to clarify the duty of care, sharpen the right to privacy, and ensure rights to speech, religious freedom, and association within the digital context. AI systems must follow strict ethical standards. The UN, state governments, social media companies, and personal business must make sure that digital technology is used for the welfare of humanity in a particular and responsible manner.


* Student at Gujarat National Law University.

^ Student at Mody University of Science & Technology


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