Our digitally connected world poses some serious challenges to human rights. Internet use and mobile connectivity, low-cost and fast computing systems, and rapid artificial intelligence (AI) advances have provided new opportunities and also present unprecedented challenges to the protections of fundamental human rights.
It is no secret that modern technologies like Al can exploit privacy, polarise societies and incite prejudice, extremism, racism, hatred, and violence across the globe in a short span of time. Breach of data security and social media campaigns can create opportunities for blackmail and influence political processes. Defenders of human rights and democracy need to address these challenges.
The treaties and conventions that codify human rights include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is an urgent need to examine these treaties and conventions to provide robust policy guidelines regarding international cooperation for protection of human rights in the digital age.
UN Secretary General stated in 2018 that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law”
International courts, tribunals and national courts, for example, should interpret international human rights conventions and national fundamental rights laws to clarify the duty of care, sharpen the right to privacy and ensure rights to speech, religious freedom, and association in the digital context. Vulnerability of women and children need immediate attention. Women experience higher level of online harassment than men. Children are more exposed to online persecution and sexual exploitation than adults. They use apps and computer games without understanding their own vulnerability. So, special privacy protection rules should be made for women and children. There should be specific design and data consent standards for online services. The American Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule of 2013 and the Age Appropriate Design Code announced by the UK in 2019, for example, prescribe such standards for digital services.
Digital technologies have put privacy at risk. AI has tremendously enhanced the possibility of electronic surveillance and interception. Thus, legitimate national security and business interests need to be balanced against a basic right to privacy. How can the latter be ensured without undermining the former? International agencies like the UN should help state parties negotiate and implement data-protection treaties and laws to ensure that governments, non-state actors, and companies cannot misuse personal information of their citizens. The personal data of citizens is sometimes misused for sending unsolicited mass messages to them.
It is reported that the 2016 US presidential election and Brexit were shaped by malicious use of digital technology. It is entirely possible that powerful countries and multinational corporations will employ AI to rob the economy of already-poor countries and weaken their national security. For example, hackers stole $81 million from the Bangladesh Central Bank by manipulating the global payments network. In view of the increasing misuse of digital technology in economic and political affairs, developing countries in particular need to raise their voices at regional and international forums for an effective mechanism of cooperation and protection of the developing world.
The UN, governments, social media companies, and private business must ensure that digital technology is employed for the welfare of humanity in a transparent and responsible manner. AI systems must follow strict ethical standards. It is becoming evident that AI can be used to create discrimination as biases can be fed into algorithms to produce a specific pattern or result. For example, Al systems can be exploited to decide who is eligible for a particular job or entitled for a pertinent public service such as housing loan or health care. Therefore, there are on-going global efforts to make AI developers subject to law and ethical values. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)’s Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, aims to make AI experts sensitive to ethical issues.
Those who develop and employ Al for political or business or war purpose must be held accountable for their actions. People are held liable for their actions under all legal systems. So, those who design, develop, adapt or deploy AI must also be held responsible for the consequences of their decisions. The liability of these actions becomes more critical when lethal autonomous weapons systems are used for killing in striking violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. While realising breaking of human rights, the UN Secretary General stated in 2018 that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law.”
As we live in an age of digital interdependence, governments, citizens, human rights defenders, and AI companies should work together to enhance digital cooperation for the protection of human rights. Common human values like equality, privacy, dignity, freedom, inclusiveness, respect, and sustainability should be preserved. These human values must serve as a beacon to guide our conduct in the digital age.
The writer is a lawyer