• The digitalization of our institutional and legal systems after COVID-19 could lead to violations of rights and global digital risks.
  • We need a new global social contract on the rights of everyone in the digital age.
  • A new Declaration of Human Rights could form the basis of a new human-centred approach to global governance.

As the pandemic accelerates the pace of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, we are entering a phase fraught with huge risks for global human rights. Artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies hold great promise, but need to be paired with ethical oversight to ensure they don’t exacerbate social inequality or lead to human rights violations.

The best way to achieve this is by committing to a Declaration of Global Digital Human Rights, which updates international law to take into account developments such as globalization and 4IR technologies. Such a declaration will fully articulate current international legal obligations of states in the field of human rights in the digital age.

Protecting human rights in the new era

For decades, human rights have been protected by the International Bill of Human Rights, a set of five human rights treaties developed by the United Nations to advance fundamental freedoms. Two of these treaties, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and The Covenants on Human Rights (1966), shaped a system of universal values and made the person a subject of the law. It is worth remembering that they were adopted after two world wars and were a belated decision in defining and legalizing these universal values.

When the drafts of the Declaration and the Covenants were developed, the world had only just begun to move from the second industrial revolution to the third. The second revolution in the early 20th century involved an explosion of innovations such as cars, new communication technologies, and assembly lines that facilitated mass production and standardization. The third, in the late 20th century, was driven by computers and digital technologies. The documents that define our idea of human rights were tied to those eras and the technologies people used at the time. They were groundbreaking and necessary, but they do not answer a simple question that is becoming ever more pressing: ‘What does it mean to be a human being in the modern world?’

Today, new technologies are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds. This fourth revolution affects all disciplines, countries and sectors. Inventions such as self-driving cars, smart robots and gene editing are challenging us to define what we really mean when we talk about qualities previously associated with humans, such as intelligence, or individuality. Added to that is our ever-tightening global interdependence.

We must fully renew the international human rights obligations of states to meet these challenges, and overcome the lag of socio-political and legal global processes.

Artificial Intelligence

What is algorithm bias?

Algorithm bias, also called machine learning bias, is a phenomenon in which algorithms can act in a discriminatory or prejudiced manner due to misplaced assumptions during the learning phase of their development.

Unconscious biases regarding gender, race and social class can make their way into the training data fed by programmers into “machine-learning algorithms”, systems which constantly improve their own performance by including new data into an existing model.

These biases can be observed in the algorithm’s output: erroneous reflected assumptions that can result in embarrassing news coverage.

Some recent stories about accidental algorithm bias include:

Identifying global digital human rights

Global digital human rights are opportunities for everyone from birth, through access to the digital benefits of civilization. They should be ensured by the consolidation in the system of forms of international law and national law. Their elements include:

1. The right to exercise personal, social, economic, political, and cultural rights based on new technologies, without barriers built on the basis of new technologies.

2. A global ban on the production and use of these new technologies for warfare and human rights violations (including autonomous combat systems, AI, big data technologies, biotechnologies, and other digital technologies).

3. A ban on the use of these technologies for total supervision and control (including technologies such as the Internet of things and face recognition).

4. The right to personal data protection, including the protection of genetic information and health data (in the context of the rapid advances in biotechnology, bioengineering and telemedicine, for example).

5. The priority of human beings - and their interests, integrity and quality of life - in the context of the creation, use, introduction, and development of artificial intelligence.

6. Equal access to the opportunities offered by these technologies, including access to education, labor, healthcare, and basic social services based on new technologies.

7. The right to take part in the management of social processes at the global, regional and national levels through digital technologies.

8. The right of access to the global Internet for everyone.

Image: Statista

Updating human rights for the challenges of our era is the key to building a better, fairer and more resilient world. As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, said: “We need a new social contract centred on human dignity, social justice and where societal progress does not fall behind economic development.”

Such change will not happen with a broad and sustained common effort. Universities, research centers, and individual scientists must join forces to develop and harmonize the theoretical and legal model underpinning the updated concept of human rights. Their input is crucial for consolidating current drafts of the Declaration of Global Digital Human Rights, as developed by the Global Digital Human Rights Project, a joint project by with Global Shapers Moscow (World Economic Forum) and the Global Law Forum.

Mechanisms for their monitoring and enforcement will also need to draw on new technologies to be effective. Finally, an effective digital society with human rights at its centre will need a functioning media and civil society that informs people of these rights and holds governments and institutions to account.

Now is the time to prevent the misuse of technologies that offer so much hope for humanity. Unless we decide how we want these technologies to be deployed, how we want to interact with them as humans, and how we want to live our lives in the context of such rapid change, the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution may turn into instruments of oppression and destruction rather than progress and development. It’s up to us to think big and tackle this challenge.

Global Shapers Moscow and the Global Law Forum invite you to take a survey on the future of human rights in the era of 4IR via this link.