Digital rights charter needs less prescribing, more consultation  | #mediadev | DW | 21.12.2016
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Commentary Digital Charter

Digital rights charter needs less prescribing, more consultation 

Following massive criticism of a new EU digital rights charter proposed by a German initiative, DW Akademie's Steffen Leidel argues the charter deserves a chance but should take a broader and more international approach.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, proclaimed in 2000, is in need of an update to take our increasingly digital life into account. That's the opinion of a German group of around 60 people drawn from politics, media, academia and civil society which includes prominent Internet activists, parliamentarians, researchers, editors-in-chief and artists. 

Under the aegis of the Hamburg-based foundation, Zeit-Stiftung, the group started an initiative to reshape the EU's fundamental democratic principles to incorporate the challenges and threats of the digital age. The German politicians Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament , and Jan Philipp Albrecht, European parliamentarian, are seen as the initiative's driving force.

The Charter of Digital Fundamental Rights of the European Union, published in December 2016, is the result. 

Charters, codes, treaties and declarations about all things digital and Internet-related aren't anything new. There are a plethora of them. As early as 2006, the Italian government started advocating for a Bill of Rights for the Internet. On an international level, the Internet Governance Forum has a so-called "dynamic coalition" on Internet Rights which has formulated its own Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet. 

Identifying relevant problems

There are those who dismiss such declarations as "paper tigers", that is, they are fodder for enthusiastic debate within Internet expert communities but, in reality, toothless and ineffectual. This attitude, however, fails to recognize the role of such declarations and charters in helping to form public opinion. 

Such initiatives are instrumental in helping to articulate developments that society badly needs to discuss. Considered in this light, the newly proposed EU digital rights charter is valuable, not so much for the solutions it presents, but simply for identifying some of the most relevant problems of digitalization and opening them up to public debate. As Albert Einstein once said, "the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution", inferring that the precise description of the problem will lead to the solution. 

The digital rights charter raises issues that are frequently the focus of DW Akademie's media development projects and workshops. In many of the countries where DW Akademie works, the curtailment of fundamental rights in the digital sphere comes hand in hand with a more general threat to freedom of expression. This is partly due to the lack of legislative frameworks for digital rights but also partly because of the hurdles people in these countries face when demanding that their rights, digital or otherwise, be respected. 

DW Akademie's Digital Strategy aims to reinforce people's capacity for participation and we and our partners are working together to promote everyone's right to use digital means of communication – freely and without censorship. We at DW Akademie share the conviction that digitalization has enormous potential to realize and protect basic rights, especially the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to information, as expressed in Article 19 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is especially true for media professionals in the Global South. 

Basic rights in the digital world under threat


Demonstrating to uphold press freedoms: against systematic violation of basic rights

The digital rights charter reveals the enormous challenges to protecting basic human rights in the online sphere. The are myriad illustrations of this. For example, in many countries in the Global South  Internet trolls in government pay threaten and defame journalists, silencing them with their actions. In others, the online activities of human rights activists and journalists are closely monitored. Government shutdowns of Internet and social media are becoming more common with more than 50 cases in 2016 (mostly in Africa), particularly during election campaigns. Journalists have been imprisoned for using encryption to protect their sources. Sometimes a 'Like' on Facebook is all it takes to become the focus of an investigation. 

Basically, fundamental human rights are being increasingly maltreated in the digital sphere.

Security versus freedom, openness versus secrecy, private versus public, man versus machine: These are the conflicting priorities which democratic societies need to finely balance when negotiating the unfamiliar terrain of the digital era. This process – whether taking place in Germany or in countries of the Global South – needs constructive debate on a broad public platform that includes all relevant groups: activists, the media, legal practitioners, researchers, politicians and economists. It is a laborious process but completely indispensable and anything else would be simply lobbying.

The digital charter's publication gave rise to heated and controversial debate in Germany, with its critics calling the document imprecise, legally dubious and half-baked. In particular, Article 5 on freedom of opinion and openness was criticized as incomplete. The document was, all in all, found to be too German and lacking transparency. Some of the authors, faced with the vehement criticism, were "shocked by the hostility of the debate."

Criticism of the process by which the digital rights charter was created is legitimate. "Charter" is a weighted word that awakens certain expectations – because a charter isn't just about the wording of the text but, crucially, about who penned the text. It's about who is talking with what agenda and what legitimization. 

Some of the charter's authors responded to criticism about wording by saying they were pressured for time. This is understandable but it's all the more reason to perhaps choose a different format rather than a charter which conveys the notion of an authoritative text set in stone (even if the German version does come with a commentary). 

Better suited to the digital age would have been publishing a document based on the idea of the "beta principle" (launching a product and improving it as you go). This would make it possible to find potential solutions using an iterative, interdisciplinary approach based on a precise problem description. 

The digital charter's authors are planning numerous events to discuss the charter during 2017 and there's also talk of a major conference. These are steps in the right direction. The project group should also consider establishing a forum for constructive debate, where they could reach out to those critics interested in progressing the project as opposed to those who have simply declared the charter dead in the water. 

Give the Global South a voice

NetMundial Conference in Sao Paulo

Activist at the NetMundial conference 2014, in Brazil: human rights from a global perspective

More than anything, discussions about the charter needs to be made international. Even when addressing the legal (European) framework relevant to their own field of activity, the authors need to resist any tendency to think in European platitudes. 

The issues under discussion, these issues of the digital world, are global issues. And human rights, both online and offline, have to be tackled from a global perspective. There could be no clearer signal for a free and open Internet than the unequivocal inclusion of voices of the Global South. 

And this shouldn't be with the notion of fixing the problems of the Global South but learning from them: In 2014, Brazil signed a comprehensive law guaranteeing human rights online, the Marco Civil da Internet. The process of creating the Marco Civil involved numerous public consultations and the framework was originally lauded as an example of best practice. Now, however, the legislation is an example of how fragile digital rights are – recent moves by Brazil's new government have given rise to fears that these Internet governance principles could be dismantled.

Steffen Leidel is head of DW Akademie's Knowledge Management and Digital Innovation department.

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