Dealing with this subject, I found a recent panel discussion from the Web Summit 2018, that covers exactly this issue. It serves very well to point out the positions and set a few common misunderstandings straight (though you don’t need to see it to read this article).

Note: The term “human rights“ used below always refers to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948.


In polls, around 90 percent of the people do think we
should have digital human rights declared.

So does the audience in this video. Being asked whether “human rights should apply online as well”, approval rates are even higher. The UN General Assembly followed this understanding in a resolution in 2012 .

The poll expresses a need for a set of guidelines that assures our basic rights apply online, globally. And to point them out more precisely, as these rights can be as contradictory to each other as UDHR Art. 12 freedom of expression and Art. 3 the right of being protected against personal harassment.

With the present tech audience, there will also be a need involved for a clear ethical orientation in developing online solutions. (The Contract for the Web proposed by Tim Barnes Lee provides such a set of orientation rules.) However smart and pleasingly responsible that is, it points out a common misunderstanding.

Human rights are defensive mechanisms against the state.

They are not valid legislation. They are not a wish list of nice-to-have achievements. And they don’t expect private people or corporations to behave adequately, as private people and the economy mind their own business by their nature.

So if you think Google misbehaves concerning your data, you should rather refer to your terms of use (civil law agreements) with Google rather than to human rights. That these agreements are being imposed under unequal and somewhat monopolistic circumstances may be unfair and subject to states regulations (if only the states where doing their jobs). But it’s only the states, that declared to shape their legislations in accordance with the human rights.

Yet human rights do have a “radiating effect”. It works through this long lever of the application of the UDHR into national laws, that sets the frame for much of our behaviour and the way markets work. The lever turned out to be stronger than expected in the first place, back in 1948. But it takes a long while and, unfortunately, it does not work perfectly.

So if we think, that we need fair terms of use, we should not only rely on the long process of a possible charter of digital human rights. We should put pressure to the states, civil societies and the companies themselves. E. g. to force almighty companies like social media corporations to open their protocols in accordance with antitrust legislation.

I know this is spooky, but human rights do not prevent us from writing weird algorithms, genetically manipulate our babies or being spied on in our homes. But they do serve as a strong reference when it comes to enforcing states to prevent this.


None of the panel speakers supported the idea of a declaration

There are good arguments to oppose a declaration of digital human rights.

  • The human rights exist already, they are clear enough
  • We should apply the existing human rights before thinking of new ones
  • Once declared, human rights do not apply automatically
  • The process takes way too long, our digital reality is far ahead
  • There are more effective ways of achieving our goals
  • Human rights in general are wishful thinking
  • The UDHR are not even fully accepted in some parts of the world (like in Russia and the Arabian countries for religious reservations)
  • There is no way China is going to sign this

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a completed process and shall not be questioned. The purpose of human rights charters is to shed light on and formulate the details of aspects.

All this is true and people who are deep in the matter tend to opt “No”, following these arguments. Especially the discouraging slow-motion negotiating process and the lack of effectiveness of such a declaration strongly recommends a plan B.So, many organisations focus on setting human rights into action and that is a very good point of view. I strongly support that approach.

However, in the long run, mankind ventures into vast new waters. We will need better and more precise instruments to cope with the new conditions. Obviously, our digital self will be an important part of us in the future. Our fundamental rights will therefore depend on information technology, just as the right to life depends on air and water. That’s why the compass of human rights in the digital Sphere must be enforced worldwide in the long term.

“Yes, …”

We believe, that a digital charter is as necessary as the children’s or women’s rights charters were.

So, many open questions in the field of digitalisation need to be – and are not yet – answered by human rights. With plenty of them still being subject to discussions.

Authoritarian and even liberal states do not see contradictions between the existing UDHR and their offending behaviour. The examples are countless:

  • Spying on a full-take basis (as seen by Great Britain and the US who have broad access to undersea cables)
  • Implementation of an almighty social credit score in china
  • Blocking of the entire internet (or substancial parts of it) in occasions of political unrest.
  • State services collect material to blackmail any person they want, such as politicians, journalists or environmental activists.
  • States seek to destroy inner peace in other countries or individual peoples’ public reputation by systematically spreading fake news.
  • State agencies put pressure on software and hardware producers in order to implement backdoors into consumer devices by default. These are not allowed to even talk about being pressed.
  • and so on …

All these offences are clearly contrary to the spirit of human rights. Still they will be executed unconcernedly – justified with other basic rights like public security (Art. 3) or the protection of some president’s honour (Art. 12) – if they they cannot be addressed straightforward.

The idea of a charter is to clarify matters and explicitly set goals for legislation concerning aspects of human rights. Exactly this is what we want to achieve in the long run. Even is chances are low, that a charter would be adopted within a reasonable time, the attempt of doing so is already framing the discussion and setting standards that some advanced countries may refer to.

That’s why we, at the Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, have discussed and formulated proposals concerning a charter of digital human rights and gave it to the UN. Referring to a broad field of German, EU- and world wide discussions, we believe that we covered the most crucial subjects of such a charter. Some things (like the right to non-information) we left out as we found they should not be subject to legislation.

We don’t say it’s perfect, we are not megalomaniac. But it’s an approach and we’d like to add it into the discussion and compare it to other proposals. If you want to support us, please feel free to promote it or get in touch with us.