The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights: a global initiative to put citizens’ digital rights at the centre of the policy debate

A joint global initiative of cities banding together to protect, promote and uphold people’s digital human rights.

On Wednesday the 14th November, the Cities for Digital Rights Coalition was presented at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. The joint initiative is intended to protect, promote and uphold people’s digital rights on a global scale.

The coalition is hoping to generate policies, mechanisms and resources in line with the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet, established within the context of the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This Coalition sets out five core principles through its declaration:Universal and equal access to the internet, and digital literacy; Privacy, data protection and security; Transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination of data, content and algorithms; Participatory Democracy, diversity and inclusion; and Open and ethical digital service standards.

These principles set the agenda for future political debates to be held in the coming year in coordination with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN–Habitat).

The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights marks the first time that cities have come together to protect digital rights on a global level. The move comes at a time of growing concern around issues such as movements and communications being monitored, shared and sold without consent; ‘black box’ algorithms making unaccountable decisions; social media being used as a tool of harassment and hate speech; and democratic processes being undermined.

The Coalition is looking to recruit other cities and will plan working groups to monitor and report on progress around each of the five principles. Individual citizens can also sign a petition to request that their city government officers’ join the cities coalition and commit to protecting and upholding digital human rights.

What are Digital Rights?

Cities are starting to rethink the smart city, aiming to transcend its merely technological objectives, not only in order to better respond to the needs of citizens but also to address several of the important urban challenges facing the city. This is why issues such as access to affordable housing, climate change, energy transition and sustainability lie at its core.

Cities are forming new public policies and alliances around the strong belief in the importance of data and technology for transforming the city, from delivering better and more affordable public services to making the municipal government more open, agile and participatory.

The Barcelona Digital Plan, co-created with the city’s innovation ecosystem, is an example of this new approach to digital policy. Setting new directives that put citizens first, and advocate for technological sovereignty. Such measures insist on re-establishing control over data and information generated by digital technologies as well as promoting public digital infrastructures based on free software and open standards.

This means building a public policy agenda for digital sovereign cities: cities that empower citizens to discuss and articulate their own priorities, as well as setting the direction of ethical innovation with clear social impact and public return. This transition process also entails rethinking urban economies, with the goal of supporting more inclusive and collaborative economic models based on solidarity and social cooperation.

In this context, upholding the notion of Digital Rights is paramount. Digital Rights refer to the human rights that individuals are entitled to when accessing the internet and digital technologies. The same rights human rights that people have offline must also be protected online. But these rights are under a global threat.

Cities are the closest democratic institutions to the people, and thus are deeply connected to the ongoing struggles for civil rights, including digital rights, of their residents. While harnessing technological opportunities to make the lives of residents’ better, cities must ensure that the digital environment and digital services provided by city governments protect these rights, acting collectively and on a global scale, to solve common challenges faced by all.