The Forum comprised high-level plenaries as well as confidential interactive sessions where human rights defenders could share their testimonies and recommendations. As stated by the High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell in his opening speech: “It is about shaping a digital world where human rights are protected and respected. This is our joint endeavour”.
The Forum addressed four main themes:
In the opening session, European Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen emphasised that “human rights are universal online and offline” while UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a global debate to “make the digital space work for everyone”.
According to the president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Alice Mogwe, it all boils down to trust: “trust that fundamental freedoms will be safeguarded, trust that technology will serve the greater good”. This implies that we should avoid technologies that harm human rights. She also argued that big tech companies influence the terms of the debate.
During the Forum, we could hear testimonies on how technology has been used for civil society to organise, for individuals to document and share images of human rights violations. However, we also heard of long-term internet shutdowns – with 213 incidents in 33 countries last year, and of ‘digital crackdowns’, against civil society in China, Hong Kong, in Belarus, Philippines, Mexico or India. Sharon Hom, director of the NGO Human Rights in China, highlighted that a there is a deep existential threat facing human right defenders: two powerful black holes- a digital space that sucks vast amount of data from us and a space of mass disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories.
In separate interactive sessions, discussions centred on how to combat hate speech, misinformation, fake news and online abuse and surveillance, while protecting freedom of expression. Online behaviour can have far-reaching offline consequences, yet we have not clearly defined what we consider to be ‘hate speech’ and what not. The current digital landscape brings about greater responsibility for governments, social media platforms, civil society and the EU to create the ‘rules of the game’, to educate and to ensure those engaging in criminal activity online are held accountable.
There was consensus that multi-stakeholder approach is essential as well as promoting digital rights in the multilateral fora, in particular the in the UN. The EU highlighted its commitment to promote human rights in the digital spheres within the UN fora, in particular the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly 3rd Committee, while supporting the work of the UN High Commissioner and UN Special Procedures in these issues.
Participants agreed that companies can and should do more to protect human rights online. They should provide safeguards for users of their platforms and explore more creatively and innovatively how to broaden the protection tools at their disposal to do so. A key element is to inform the user and to provide transparency on the algorithms used. For the digital transformation self-regulation and voluntary commitments by companies are important but not sufficient. Voluntary action should be accompanied by regulation and strong governance mechanism. The voice of the private sector was heard through the participation of EU representatives of Twitter and Facebook.
Many participants highlighted the normative power of the EU and its global influence on matters such as data privacy (GDPR legislation) or the upcoming Digital Service Act and legislation on Artificial Intelligence. NGOs and UN experts called on the EU to keep championing human rights in line with the new EU Action Plan for Human rights and Democracy and the recently adopted EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.
In response to the need to enhance digital skills of human rights defenders, a training on digital security was organised in the margins of the Forum.