Human Rights and Internet Technology: Six Considerations

The increased reliance on Internet technology impacts human rights. Image: Bruno Cordioli (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

The Internet has drastically reshaped communication practices across the globe, including many aspects of modern life. This increased reliance on Internet technology also impacts human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Council has reaffirmed many times (most recently in a 2016 resolution) that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”.

However, only limited guidance is given by international human rights monitoring bodies and courts on how to apply human rights law to the design and use of Internet technology, especially when developed by non-state actors. And while the Internet can certainly facilitate the exercise and fulfilment of human rights, it is also conducive to human rights violations, with many Internet organizations and companies currently grappling with their responsibilities in this area.

To help understand how digital technology can support the exercise of human rights, we—Corinne Cath, Ben Zevenbergen, and Christiaan van Veen—organized a workshop at the 2017 Citizen Lab Summer Institute in Toronto, on ‘Coding Human Rights Law’. By gathering together academics, technologists, human rights experts, lawyers, government officials, and NGO employees, we hoped to gather experience and scope the field to:

1. Explore the relationship between connected technology and human rights;

2. Understand how this technology can support the exercise of human rights;

3. Identify current bottlenecks for integrating human rights considerations into Internet technology; and

4. List recommendations to provide guidance to the various stakeholders working on human-rights strengthening technology.

In the workshop report “Coding Human Rights Law: Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2017 Workshop Report“, we give an overview of the discussion. We address multiple legal and technical concerns. We consider the legal issues arising from human rights law being state-centric, while most connected technologies are being developed by the private sector. We also discuss the applicability of current international human rights frameworks to debates about new technologies. We cover the technical issues that arise when trying to code for human rights, in particular when human rights considerations are integrated into the design and operationalization of Internet technology. We conclude by identifying some areas for further debate and reflection, six of which we list below:

Integrating Human Rights into Internet Technology Design: Six Considerations


1. Further study of the application of instruments of the existing human rights framework, (like the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights) to Internet actors is needed, including the need for new legal instruments at the national and international level that specify the human rights responsibilities of non-state actors.

2. More research is needed to analyse and rebuild the theories underpinning human rights, given the premises and assumptions grounding them may have been affected by the transition to a digitally mediated society. Much has been done on the rights to privacy and free speech, but more analysis of the relevance of other human rights in this area is needed.

3. Human rights frameworks can best be approached as a legal minimum baseline, while other frameworks, like data protection legislation or technology-specific regulation, provide content to what is aimed for above and beyond this minimum threshold.


1. Taking into account a wider range of international human rights would benefit the development of human rights oriented Internet technology. This means thinking beyond the right to privacy and freedom of expression to include (for example), the right to equality and non-discrimination, and the right to work.

2. Internet technologies, in general, must be developed with an eye towards their potential negative impact and human rights impact assessments undertaken to understand that impact. This includes knowledge of the inherent tensions that exist between different human rights and ensuring that technology developers are precise and considerate about where in the Internet stack they want to have an impact.

3. Technology designers, funders, and implementers need to be aware of the context and culture within which a technology will be used, by involving the target end-users in the design process. For instance, it is important to ensure that human-rights-enabling technology does not price out certain populations from using it.

Internet technology can enable the exercise of human rights—if it is context-aware, recognises the inherent tensions between certain rights (privacy and knowledge; free speech and protection from abuse for example), flexible yet specific, legally sound and ethically just, modest in its claims, and actively understanding and mitigating of potential risks.

With these considerations, we are entering uncharted waters. Unless states have included human rights obligations directly into their national laws, there are few binding obligations on the private sector actors pushing forward the technology. Likewise, there are also few methodologies for developing human-right-enabling technology—meaning that we should be careful and considerate about how these technologies are developed.

Read the workshop report: Corinne Cath, Ben Zevenbergen, and Cristiaan van Veen (2018) Coding Human Rights Law: Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2017 Workshop Report. Posted: 14 February, 2018.