Time For A Universal Declaration of Digital Rights

We urgently need a United Nations Universal Declaration of Digital Rights.

With existing digital rights under threat, it would realise the intention of the great document, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to fulfil the fundamental right expressed in its Article 1, that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Universal Declaration of Digital Rights

Article 1. The right for universal, affordable access to the internet

Article 2. The right to privacy of communications and the use of cryptography

Article 3. The right to control personal data

Article 4. The right to freely use open source software

Article 5. The right to public digital infrastructure enabling global democracy

Article 6. The right to free political speech in the public digital sphere

Article 7. The right to safeguards to protect against threats, surveillance and exploitation within the digital public sphere

Article 8. The right to interoperability of digital infrastructures such as internet and artificial intelligence networks

Article 9. The right to protest within the public digital sphere against climate change and weapons of mass destruction, without legal penalty

Article 10. The right to access and convey information and commentary in the public interest in the public digital sphere and be afforded the same protections as journalists.

This is not the first attempt to frame digital rights, but it comes as digital rights come under intense pressure. A Universal Declaration of Digital Rights will arm global citizens to finally deal with the climate change emergency and the issue of nuclear war, and it will enable the funding of global public digital infrastructure to realise the democratic potential of digital technologies.

Global democracy facilitated by public digital infrastructure is our last chance to comprehensively address climate change before it is too late to maintain a sustainable world.

The digital rights global citizens already have are in danger.

We are witnessing fragmentation of the internet public sphere and technology infrastructure, as autocrats and democracies face off in a bid for control. China and Russia have both disdained established internet ethics to subvert the internet for short-term political gain.

Unfortunately, there is no time to wait for these regimes to be dismantled or circumvented. The universality and utility of the internet is an issue of critical importance as we run out of time to finally make a global effort to address the spectre of climate change, the dark shadow hanging over our global future.

There is also a need to address war as a global population, in universal condemnation of those countries which misuse their power to try to crush others. In doing so, they seek to distort the public functions of the internet and dismantle the near universal interconnectivity that is our last shot at working together to save our own planet. From US President Biden to Anonymous, we hear an online outcry against Russia’s crimes against Ukraine. Putin’s dismantling of Russia’s online public sphere is a particular transgression, one that demonstrates the overwhelming value of freedom of speech and free journalism.

Global citizens are finally waking up to the realisation that we need to move now to create and protect digital infrastructure that serves global citizens and recognises their rights. We cannot wait until Big Tech or national governments do it for us, because they most likely aren’t capable of it. We cannot wait until Tech titans get woke about climate change, renewables are everywhere, or the current fossil fuel dominated crop of politicians fades away.

We need to recognise how closely the issues of digital rights and climate change are intertwined. Progress of the global population to educate itself will need to happen before essential coordinated actions to turn back climate change can happen this decade.

Though there is a limited global public sphere in operation across various platforms and we see global Big Tech generally trying to work and develop to principle, we need a new platform or a new approach. This would amplify “public good” news media and cast off some of the traditional strictures of journalism. It would invest in in artificial intelligence, to create a verified information source that is capable of hosting analysis and collaborative activities across the fields of endeavour that will affect climate change, which is to say, most of the important economic, political and cultural fields that exist.

Artificial intelligence needs to be regulated so that collaboration and effective coordination of the necessary strategies can be created to deal with climate change causes and impacts. We are already seeing a stealthy move towards fragmentation of standards in artificial intelligence that presages the more obvious fragmentation of internet infrastructure and the rise of political interference. The rot is already setting in, and we need to recognise the need to campaign for a global citizens’ digital infrastructure.

The new digital sphere needs core values that are derived from globally accepted internet principles, not from the libertarian views of American entrepreneurs. The digital infrastructure built by these people has brought us a long way, but now we need to travel much further. The UN’s consensus approach may finally be the best way forward in devising a values framework for a new digital public infrastructure. Once digital rights are accepted globally, nations can then see their way clear to develop new public infrastructure, paid for with public money or internet microtax. The structure would be funded by global citizens, not profits-driven commerce. Most of all, global citizens would be on the same screen, collaborating on the thousands of existing climate change, environmental and human rights initiatives already at work.

Look at the possibilities: global citizens could follow the lead set by Australia’s tech entrepreneur, Mike Cannon-Brooks, who tried to buy a coal-fired power station so he could shut it down. Imagine the combined financial power of huge numbers of global citizens deciding to buy internet platforms, oil companies, or destructive media companies like Murdoch’s, and transforming them or shutting them down. Global citizens could fund multiple court cases against polluters, fossil fuel and environmental vandals, and challenge despots. Global citizens could boycott, adopt sustainable practices and products, and engage in protected political action to preserve the environment and expose the mechanics of destructive regimes and industries. They could demand all-renewables energy now.

These are the transformational actions fossil fuel powerbrokers around the world are so afraid of. This is the public digital infrastructure that has already made Greta Thunberg so much more than a kid against climate change. This is the latent power of global citizens deciding to unite for immediate change.

When the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was developed in1948, modern computers and the internet did not exist. General communication rights were set set up, specifically Article19:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is time to recognise that specific digital rights are required to enable global citizens to maintain the intention of Article19, as the world faces imminent and vastly destructive challenges caused by climate change and war, in tandem with an erosion of freedom and trust within the digital technologies of the global network. There is a need for a public digital infrastructure that consciously enables global citizens to harness their combined political power and strategies. However, it is difficult to see how the necessary political and economic changes can be made without an intervention by the United Nations.

The right time is now.