Human Rights Agreements Need a Tech Update

Human rights agreements need to account for how technology is changing our basic rights.

New technology is as difficult to regulate as it is to predict. As technologies develop, so too do creative and dangerous ways of abusing them at the expense of human rights. We need a new international agreement to push both governments and tech companies toward more responsible and human rights-conscious ways of doing business.

A 2019 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that China is actively exporting its “digital authoritarianism” to other countries, both through the actual hardware and by sharing methods of using tech for oppression. The “Fatherland Card” system of social control in Venezuela and the growing surveillance state in Zimbabwe are significant examples of this: The former is a social credit system tracking people’s social lives, online activity and political party membership while the latter has seen Zimbabwe signing a deal with a Chinese tech start-up to implement a mass facial recognition program within the country.

The current rules are unsuitable for regulating this new tech authoritarianism. A new global agreement on tech and human rights would be invaluable in blowing the dust off of old conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1976 and the 1948 Universal Declaration. A new agreement based on these laws would also ensure that they remain relevant to the twenty-first century and beyond. For example, Article 19 of the ICCPR stipulates that everybody has the right to freedom of expression. Written in 1976, the text cannot account for the ways in which a deep fake might be used to violate a person’s freedom of expression — their widespread use to create non-consensual pornography being a key example of this. Article 17 guarantees people’s right to privacy. Throughout the pandemic, however, countries have implemented surveillance programs to track COVID-19 cases, programs that can be considered as serious violations of individual privacy. Before this, rampant Islamophobia caused by the Global War on Terror provided the basis for the mass surveillance of Muslim communities worldwide.

Recent history, therefore, shows repeated global events being used as pretexts for infringement on liberties — with technology at the forefront. An updated international agreement, however, would modernize these fundamental rights, take steps to harmonize countries’ diverging interpretations of them, and refresh public interest and knowledge in human rights law. The key question, however, is: How?

THE NEW AGREEMENT

The new agreement would be among the first to codify the responsibility of big tech alongside that of states. Current agreements that address human rights in business, such as the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines, are only effective in theory. They simply encourage companies to pay lip service to the ideals of human rights without being compelled to real action. This means that major international tech actors are not bound by the same peremptory norms as states and can operate with a freer hand.

The current rules are unsuitable for regulating this new tech authoritarianism. A new global agreement on tech and human rights would be invaluable in blowing the dust off of old conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1976 and the 1948 Universal Declaration.

Revising the rules will rattle some cages in the private sector. Companies will argue that the agreement could hinder free trade. There are two simple counterpoints to this complaint. First, many international companies like Mars, Total, and Coca-Cola have already shown support for agreements like the UNGPs. A more formal agreement would only solidify the values many of these companies publicly and purportedly support. Second, given that human rights due diligence is expected and accepted in other industries (i.e., clothing retailers being increasingly legally obliged to audit their supply chains for forced labor), the same should be expected by the tech industry.

The Paris Agreement is a good example of how tech and human rights have come together and offers valuable lessons on consensus-building and compromise. As part of the deal, developed countries agreed to support developing countries with capacity-building to assist them in meeting their climate obligations. As with the Paris Agreement, a new tech and human rights agreement would require the establishment of a governing body to oversee its implementation, set the terms of burden-sharing, and mediate disputes. It should also forego the threat of punitive sanctions and penalties that could scare off flakier would-be members, which would be similar to the Paris Agreement. Although flawed, the Paris Agreement’s resilience suggests it can offer lessons in focusing global leaders’ minds on large-scale, divisive issues.

It would be easy to assume states like China and Russia would immediately shoot down a new agreement. Neither state, however, rejected the Paris Agreement, despite both being in the top five global carbon polluters. In the face of inevitable pushback from these countries, the solution is to frame the new agreement as an update to conventions of which the vast majority of countries are already state parties, like the ICCPR. In contrast, members of the Non-Aligned Movement may welcome a new agreement. Much of the rest of the world sees tech disputes between the United States and China as “little more than evil versus evil.” The opportunity to offer their own voices and perspectives into a new agreement would provide a welcome alternative to these competing approaches, building a less polarized model for global tech governance.

AN AGREEMENT IS POSSIBLE 

Leading tech voices have already been pushing for a “Digital Geneva Convention” — an agreement that will protect civilians and civil infrastructure from state-backed cyberattacks. We must extend this wisdom to our most basic rights, to prevent the worst aspects of new technology being used for oppression. This is not an impossible feat.

Any agreement that seeks to modernize our decades-old human rights agreements will doubtlessly require compromise and concessions. Such an agreement will be an important — and necessary — start. Above all, it will be a concrete step in compelling the world’s major actors toward accountability for the ways they use and misuse new technologies to erode our most fundamental rights.

James Jennion is a foreign policy analyst and adviser based in the United Kingdom, where he works mainly on human rights and crisis prevention.