United Against Digital Dystopia

Through our United Against Digital Dystopia work, we aim to bring our research and that of our partners and peers to the attention of governments, international organizations, and human rights accountability mechanisms. Our starting point is that a better understanding of the human rights implications of digital government should inform the policies and decision-making of governments and international organizations. We center a comparative, international perspective grounded in human rights, focusing especially on the rights of the most marginalized. We seek especially to highlight important parallels between the human rights implications of digital government across varied contexts all around the world.

Our work on the digital state and human rights at CHRGJ originated in pioneering work undertaken on the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Philip Alston and Christiaan van Veen first addressed the phenomenon of the emerging ‘digital welfare state’ during country visits to the United States and the United Kingdom in 2017 and 2018 under this United Nations mandate. Subsequently, in a 2019 report to the United Nations General Assembly, we warned that there was a need “to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling, zombie-like, into a digital welfare dystopia.”

For this report, a total of 60 written submissions were received from 22 governments, as well as civil society organizations, academics, and individuals in 34 countries. We hosted several consultation meetings bringing together digital rights groups, leading scholars, NGOs, and activists from across the globe who work on issues relating to digital technologies, welfare, and human rights. This report to the United Nations General Assembly, bringing together insights from all around the world, has been highly influential in generating attention to questions surrounding digital government and human rights.

We have also engaged United Nations human rights accountability mechanisms, including through our 40-page communication to the Irish government about the discriminatory and exclusionary impact of its de facto digital ID system (the Public Services Card). With the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, we also submitted an amicus brief in litigation against the Netherlands’ digital welfare fraud detection system, known as SyRI, which was subsequently found by the court to violate human rights. We also hosted an event on Techno-Racism with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism surrounding her report on the racially-discriminatory impacts of emerging digital technologies, as well as a groundbreaking event on human rights in the digital age with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In our work, we seek to bring together evidence and expertise from around the world into specific policy and decision-making procedures, to emphasize the importance of learning from experiences elsewhere. Our work surrounding the harms of digital ID systems is informed by our efforts to foster global networks among activists working on these issues. In a letter to the United States government in the context of its AI Bill of Rights initiative, we drew on our comparative research and global network of scholars and activists to bring to the U.S. government’s attention myriad evidence of the harms and severe implications of biometric technologies in countries as diverse as Ireland, India, and Uganda.

Photo above by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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