Friday, 21 January, 2022

Ensure Digital Human Rights

Narayan Prasad Ghimire


The global digital campaign of #MeToo created heated debates and discussion on sexual violence against women. Many women disclosed the sexual harassments and assaults they faced over times. Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter brought to light the deep seated racial discrimination in the West. Thanks to the digital platforms, millions of people joined the social movements spurred by these hash tags. There are several other such movements launched via digital spaces focusing particular community, country and the entire globe as per sensitivity and severity of the issue.

Moreover, the role of Facebook and Twitter is often lauded for their role in the Arab Spring which led to the collapse of various dictatorial regimes in the region. The social media amplified the voices of people against the vices of the rulers and oppression of regimes. In Nepal too, #IamwithDrKC becomes viral from time to time. Seemingly these words joined with hash tags may not be noted by everyone, but the commotion they create to exert pressure on the government and policymakers is enormous.

Digital electioneering
Currently, Nepal's major political parties are holding their general conventions from ward to national levels and campaigning in digital platforms - Facebook and Twitter. Formations of Messenger Groups, Facebook pages and tweets for any candidate and party have evident contribution to foster political discussion, programmes and agenda. Although it may be eyesore and digital pollution to some section, there is no denying that digital electioneering is the exercise of one's political freedoms on new public sphere- the digital platforms. The social movements stimulated by the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatters not only reflected people's freedom of expression but also propelled their social rights.

In addition to enabling our exercise of political and social rights, the internet has equally important role to promote our economic, educational and cultural rights. One can not only execute his/her bank transaction via digital media but also participate in share market, and take educational classes and trainings. These are examples of economic and educational freedoms on digital spaces.

Internet has further facilitated these spaces where more than half of the world population has access to the various digital platforms. Most of the countries have aimed at increase the people’s access to internet and benefit from it positive sides. When it comes to the exercise of human rights on internet, one may wonder whether we can exercise our rights on digital space/internet as equally as in physical sphere or the offline. Early in 2012, the UN had advocated that human rights could/should be exercised online as in offline. That is to say, there should not be any restriction to a person to exercise his/her rights online.

Offline rights are online rights. However, for lack of infrastructures, skills and literacy to negotiate digital sphere, it is undoubted that we are not equally able to fully exercise the human rights online. In this regard, one could not imagine that the mode of present transportation could be disrupted. But, the current availability of internet and innovative Apps have radicalised our transportation. The ride-sharing and food takeaway services have become common these days.

In the wake of increased internet penetration in the population, the issues of protection and promotion of human rights online has emerged vehemently in the recent years across the globe. Besides the above references, mostly the guarantee of freedom of expression, privacy and data protection in cyberspace has come to the fore.

Needless to say, every scientific achievement has both positive and negative sides. It is therefore essential for us to curb vices and promote virtues of internet. Promoting human rights on internet and minimising risks and crimes on it warrants equal attention and engagement of the government bodies and stakeholders concerned. The views, concerns and expertise from wider sectors are imperative to make effective national policies and laws surrounding the internet issues. As the internet governance is a vast regime with its links to several areas, a delicate balance on the internet issues must not be denied.

In our case, the Electronic Transaction Act (ETA) has triggered controversy as it has also been used to harass journalists and citizens for mere exercise of their rights to free speech and reporting online. Kathmandu District Court has released most of the journalists arrested for their alleged involvement in cybercrime. Similarly, the rights activists have shown their concern on some provisions of the Bill related to Information Technology, which is under consideration in federal parliament. It was registered three years ago but failed to get endorsed owing to political disputes.

Legal measures
At the same time, cybercrimes cannot be belittled at all. Adequate legal measures are required to curb the cybercrimes. If the provisions in the law and regulations become vague enough to curb cybercrimes, it may clash with exercise of human rights as freedom of expression and privacy online. Cyber security is another thorny area requiring utmost cooperation and consultation before making any laws and policy on it. In the name of country's cyber security, the individual's cyber security must not be compromised. The surveillance measures the State adopts to track people's online activities should not infringe upon their right to privacy, the gateway to other rights.

The State can argue that anonymity online causes cybercrime. It is true but in the harsh regime, anonymity helps rights defenders and investigative journalists to stay safe online. So, anonymity cannot be interpreted just from negative lens, but for digital safety and privacy of individual too. Importantly, seeking technological solution to every social evil is sheer utopian thought. Ensuring human rights online is making technology human centered and it is what the need of hour is.

(Ghimire is associated with Rastriya Samachar Samiti)