Technology has dramatically transformed the world we live in. It is increasingly difficult to remember human existence before digital technologies and digital information permeated almost every aspect of life. Digitalization has radically changed government, business, science, as well as many other aspects of human interaction. But we are also far removed from the early days of the internet and personal computer boom and that period’s optimism about our digital future; a time when Nicholas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital that “[l]ike a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”
Today’s digital reality is mixed, and we are not only aware of the promises of new technologies, but also of the ability of these technologies to cause harm and undermine our human rights. Technology-driven automation may lead to displacement of human workers, governments may use an immense data stream to spy on us and control our behavior, and social media can be a marketplace for hate. How do we ensure that technology and data are used to fulfill our rights, like our human rights to health, to education, and to social security, rather than to violate those rights? As governments incorporate digital technologies, how do we ensure that no one is excluded? These are some of the key questions that guide the Center’s work on digital technologies and human rights.
The Digital Welfare State
Emerging from groundbreaking work undertaken on the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, CHRGJ launched the “Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project” in 2019 to investigate systems of social protection and assistance in countries around the world that are increasingly driven by digital data and technologies. Such data and technologies are commonly used to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish. The project has sought to further theoretical and practical understandings of these phenomena, from the perspective of international human rights law, to trigger a global debate on the human rights implications of the rise of digital welfare states, and to form a coalition and network of relevant organizations and individuals interested in addressing the positive and negative human rights implications of digital welfare states. This focus on research, action and education and community-building remains the essence of our work on new technologies and human rights.
But the human rights implications of governments’ wholesale embrace of digital technologies spread far beyond the “digital welfare state.” Around the world, governments are busily implementing “digital transformation” strategies, using a buzzword much preferred by governments and those advising them, and effecting radical transformations within the interactions between governments and individuals. These “digital transformation” initiatives affect all parts of the state, not merely the delivery of welfare and social protection services. From the introduction of digital ID systems in India or Kenya that act as “gateways” to accessing social and other human rights, to “digital-by-default” welfare benefits in the United Kingdom, digital government is rapidly becoming omnipresent.
We are exploring these broader implications of digital transformation in the state on human rights in several strands of our work. This includes our work on the Everyone Counts! initiative, through which we undertake in-depth research on digital ID, social exclusion, and human rights violations, targeted advocacy and network building. The wider implications of the Digital Leviathan for human rights are also investigated through Transformer States: A Series on Digital Government and Human Rights. This is a series of virtual in-depth interviews with practitioners and academics working at the cutting edge of research and advocacy on digital government, as well as accompanying blog posts about digital government and human rights. This series of interviews and blogs aims to explore digital transformation and its impact on the lives and rights of individuals. Finally, we aim to bring our research and that of our partners and peers to the attention of international organizations, especially global and regional human rights accountability mechanisms, through our United Against Digital Dystopia advocacy.
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