Exploring Human Rights in a Digital World

By March 2019, 50% of the world will be connected to the Internet. This was the overarching theme of “Our People-Centred Digital Future,” an event from Silicon Valley-based technology research and advisory firm Constellation Research.

On December 10, 2018, key Internet pioneers, the People-Centered Internet coalition, and the next generation of positive change agents, gathered in San Jose, California, for this event, which also aligned with the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. I was incredibly honoured to be among the speakers for this inspiring and transformative event. (A fabulous summary by David Bray of the full event can be found here)

Whereas much has changed since the Declaration was adopted in 1948, its principles remain as relevant as ever. While the document lists civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty, free speech and privacy, it also includes economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to social security, health and education.

There was an incredible lineup of speakers at the event, from innovators, professors, business and policy leaders (like David Bray and Mei Ling Fung), to representatives from companies such as Salesforce and the Pew Research Center. The audience heard from the “fathers” of the World Wide Web themselves, Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf.

The two voiced their concerns over the future of the internet.

“It’s a time of worry, a time of fear,” Berners-Lee told the audience. “We need to work really hard together to fix it; we’ve got to get to where the internet is a net benefit to humanity.”

As we reach the “50–50 moment,”panellists questioned whether the internet will be the ‘vision of information for all’ that the early internet pioneers imagined, or whether it will it be a controlled world featuring government surveillance.

Speakers reminded us that it is not all doom and gloom, and tech can be a force for good. We are entering into an exciting era. Going along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ anniversary, the conference also explored: “what will human rights look like in a digital era?”

Scott Campbell, Senior Human Rights Officer from the UN Human Rights, discussed the document’s importance in 2018 and beyond.

Campbell noted that the UN Human Rights office has plans to come to Silicon Valley, partly to ensure that the human rights approach is incorporated into all new services, business models and products.

I am proud to have participated in this pivotal event. My panel discussion, titled The Internet and Education, explored: how does technology democratize learning? How technology can be used to drive learning and education for all. The conversation revolved around open education resources, digital identity and reputation, social networking and peer-to-peer learning.

My personal focus centred on impact and inclusion. How can we use technology to create more inclusive conversations? The internet has enabled two-way bridges to exist, where we can share the best of what we have with the world, and bring the best of the world to us. If we capture the potential of the internet and technology, we can create a more inclusive environment.

The fact that this event was live streamed demonstrates the powerful reach of the internet. The 2017 SingularityU Canada Summit was held in Toronto, but hosted 42 satellite and livestream events, and saw a total of 6,200 participants across Canada, some located in remote areas. Before, these conversations would be limited to participants inside the room. We were able to create inclusive conversations that would not have been possible before.

Technology is enhancing learning and teaching methods. With technology, education is not just limited to the walls of the classrooms.

Computer + WiFi = endless possibilities

The internet is a space for learning at any age, from any corner of the world. With the internet, the full power of the global population can be brought to the table.

For instance, on the day of the conference, Equitas, a human rights education organization based in Canada (full disclosure, I am a Board member), launched a free online course. Offered in English, French and Arabic, the course provides training in human rights education , and how one can take action to protect and promote these rights in everyday life. A platform for discussion, the course allows its users to engage and discuss with others taking the course from across the globe.

The work the organizations like People Centred Internet and Equitas are doing is important — and thanks to technology it is accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. When it comes to education, the internet is making a significant impact, and it is exciting to see what 2019 and the coming years will bring.