Workshop on ‘What are people’s rights in the digital world?’

‘What are people’s rights in the digital world? – Moving towards a digital social contract’ (Bengaluru, 4-5 December, 2015) participated in a 2 day workshop organized by IT for Change in Bengaluru on the theme of the changing nature of human rights in the digital age. This involved understanding digital rights from a lens beyond that of civil and political rights and to include the social and economic rights in its purview as well. The participants were a mix of digital rights activist and academicians, along with a wide range of stakeholders from the social sector, representing women rights, tribal issues, environment concerns, the Government’s MNREGA, and literacy schemes. The aim of the workshop was to design a set of working principles for rights that should be protected and demanded in a digital world with insights from the social sector.

The first day was divided into two panel discussions to set the context of the workshop, followed by splitting into 5 groups to cover separate themes. The panels were on the topics; “Traditional human rights actors present how rights consciousness and articulation developed in different areas”, and “What is the digital doing to our world”. The panels brought out a wide range of thought provoking perspectives, including those from feminist ideologies, personal experiences about the implications of Aadhaar, views on openness of data, developments in legal jurisprudence, including the right to information movement, food security and other welfare statutes. The panelists even pondered on the questions of balance and control over the present involvement of data in everyday lives and the increasing dependence and convenience because of it. The second part of the day was marked for group discussions on the themes of- data & privacy, access & connectivity, Internet intermediaries & platforms, freedom of expression & association, and softwarization of things. The idea was to refresh the traditional struggles and ideologies of human rights and import that in a world surrounded by digitization. An approximate of 30 participants came up with a draft of certain principles under all the 5 themes that was deliberated in the collective group as the last exercise for the day.

The second day was reserved for a fresh look at the draft principles and a finer drafting, following which there was a concluding session on the suggestions for the ways and forums of taking the discussion forward. Some of the recommendations included formation of a loose coalition for strengthening the voice of the community and ensuring representation in government talks and other policy initiatives. Along with the coalition, a long term idea was that of working on a comprehensive status report of India’s digitization that would cover all the states, their infrastructure level, the literacy & awareness among the population and track the implementation of digital initiatives by the State and otherwise. There was an opinion about having an Internet Social Forum next year that would have a social welfare segment along with working on the legal front with formation of principles for the digital rights of Indian citizens.

A working draft of the preliminary principles compiled under each theme at the workshop is as follows:

1. Access & Connectivity

  • Equal access for all
  • Public provisions should not violate net neutrality.
  • W3C standards for the visually impaired.
  • Assurance of quality of connectivity + Platforms that meet special needs
  • Rights and entitlements are hinged to older rights and do not emerge from a vacuum. Equal access must ensure furtherance of these rights and entitlements. (e-government transition issues)

2. Freedom of Expression & Association

  • The Internet must be maintained as a safe public space without censorship of content by platforms/intermediaries or state but subject to reasonable restrictions.
  • Right to resort to traditional means of collective bargaining on digital platforms
  • Right to use the Internet to organise peaceful assemblies and engage in online protest.
  • Right to access, receive, and disseminate information freely, without censorship of content, or measures designed to intimidate/limit online expression, except reasonable restrictions in accordance with law
  • Freedom from algorithmic/mass filtering and blocking of content by platforms/intermediaries
  • The plurality and diversity of online media should be respected and protected.
  • The right of citizens to access and receive news related information free of pervasive commercial interest.

3. Data Protection & Privacy

  • Need an institutionalised structure to set standards for data generation and use.
  • A data commission on the lines of the various surveys needs to be set up- standards should be commensurate with Constitutional principles.
  • Private sectors dealing in, generating or using public data need to be mandated to share the data with the data commons bank Uber maps cities of India; this is public data gathered by an agency, government needs to add this data to the commons.
  • Public advocacy to build understanding and support for the notion of “data commons”
  • Empower communities/local self governments to collect and use their own data
  • “Data literacy mission” to train a corps of grassroots data officers
  • Formation of a suitably empowered agency that will supervise data collection, use, re-use, storage, deletion and interlinking relating to personal data. Big data needs interlinking, implying that it is possible to track you back through the meta data of more than one data set
  • A set of vigilance principles needs to be formulated and the agency be empowered to take punitive action for violation of the principles –Body should proceed with interlinking through a court permission.

4. Intermediaries & Platforms

  • Non-discriminatory access (ensure net neutrality), transparency of algorithms or at least public interest transparency using escrows like disclosing of contents for food and medicine in the public interest.
  • Platforms cannot be allowed for private policing. Clear rules needs to be laid out by an appropriate body. Regular consultations and public hearings needs to be done.
  • Internet exchange points: Local termination of local data needs to be enforced.
  • A public movement with bottom-up approach, develop a people friendly digital jurisprudence.

5. Softwarization of Things

  • Right to access software, right to create using any tools and formats and platforms that are available (digital mobility), right to modify, right to share
  • In case of embedded software, right to opt out.
  • Right to know what I am using, right to configure what I am using we see this right being taken away.
  • Right not to be locked in, no part of the device should be restricted.

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