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A Call for an Intersectional Feminist Informed Universal Declaration on Digital Rights

The Internet is in many ways a reflection of “real life” and thus structural inequalities, such as racism and misogyny that are embedded in our laws, politics, and social structures, are also found alive and well online. The Internet was created by and is sustained by people – like any other institution or invention. And just as we are grappling with how to address these issues in “real life,” we must confront them in the digital world as well. 

While humanity has not eradicated harmful practices, such as gender-based violence or religious persecution, we have centuries of history to learn from and an established vocabulary and legal frameworks to turn to. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, created in 1948, lays out the fundamental human rights that every person is entitled to and every government must universally protect. While millions of people around the world are still denied their basic human rights, we at least have an international, agreed upon standard to define harm, hold perpetrators accountable, and hold governments responsible for protecting these basic rights. We propose a similar framework for the Internet.

With Women Leading in Artificial Intelligence, Equality Now proposes to mobilize the international community towards the creation of a Universal Declaration on Digital Rights (UDDR). We envisage that this bold document, rooted in existing human rights law and underpinned by an intersectional, feminist and anti-discrimination analysis, would clearly articulate how human rights apply in the digital sphere so that governments and companies can be held accountable. While laws and regulations already exist – we cherish that over 120 countries all over the world are enacting privacy legislation – how digital rights can be conceived as fundamental rights through an international, universal, and binding tool is a necessary step, and one that needs to go through the UN system, it’s to be successful.

When rights and freedoms are infringed

In addition to promoting equitable access to the Internet and fostering an inclusive digital landscape, the UDDR would address the current critical failings arising from the misuse of the Internet and digital technology:

  • Invasions of privacy and data breaches, including the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, publishing private or identifying information about a particular individual (known as doxxing), or the mass disclosure of private information through hacking. 
  • AI biases, which perpetuate sexist and racist recruitment practices, gender and racial profiling by governments agencies and businesses, and discrimination by machine learning systems that control and curate information we are fed. 
  • Predictive technologies are often being used to replace policy. They make decisions about resource allocation which too often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Echo-chamber effects where communities form around racially or sexually discriminatory and biased ideologies, e.g. Incels. More and more people socialize and communicate via digital devices, which can lead to disconnection, isolation, misinformation, and radicalization.
  • Uneven and ineffective regulation of the internet, with little accountability for abusers, resulting in impunity for cyber criminals who use online tools to: abuse and harass their victims, traffick human beings, publish damaging images and materials, livestream sexual abuse, groom victims, and commit hate crimes against people or groups due to their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Responding to digital offenses is a particularly difficult and complex legal challenge that requires the resolution of tensions between the rights to privacy and freedom of expression with the rights to safety and protection from harms, including abuse and hate speech. Individual countries, companies, and platforms have taken positive steps to address the problem but as skyrocketing rates of online sexual abuse and exploitation demonstrate, a piecemeal approach is insufficient. 

The proposed UDDR is so ambitious in scope because we know that the only way to truly guarantee an equitable Internet is through international cooperation and buy-in. The digital world does not adhere to sovereign boundaries and so the only way to eradicate online harms is through a multilateral, multi-stakeholder approach. 

The creation of the UDDR will require us to bring together diverse stakeholders to work on the principles and content of the Declaration, to enshrine and protect the rights of those that face discrimination and marginalization based on sex, gender, and intersecting inequality arising from disability, migrant status, age, race and ethnicity, among others. And we will mobilize the international community to support and take action towards developing and adopting the Declaration.