Can Europe Make It?

Defending human rights in a digital age

Public Debate: Defending human rights in a digital age is being livestreamed from Goldsmiths media and communications department, University of London at GMT this evening. Listen here and read on.

Marianne Franklin
26 February 2015


The internet-dependent world, is still reeling from the first wave of revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that the US, UK and allied governments have been collecting the details of our everyday lives online, using tailor-made applications for this purpose, such as PRISM.

The human rights implications of state and private actors' tracking of our everyday life online, our digital imagination, and our relationships with other people through social media have been thrust into the headlines as a result.

In the last two years since news of mass online surveillance broke, the Snowden dossier has revealed a list of applications designed to gather as many ‘haystacks’ of big data that security agencies consider to be sufficient to find a would-be terrorist, cybercriminal, or other sort of suspect. And in the last month we have learnt that now mobile phone conversations can be plucked out of the ether at will, as the Snowden files reveal the hacking of a Dutch-French sim card manufacturer’s system that has provided the US security establishment with ability to unlock encrypted data.

It appears that we are living now in an era of mutually assured surveillance. This is one in which all our personal data (the details we provide when registering for goods and services online), along with our mobile phone conversations, web search preferences, emails, social media accounts, credit card transactions, and other sensitive information about our health and finances are all being scooped by governmental and commercial agencies. The reason? National security, crime prevention, anti-terrorism measures. Fiercely contested legislation such as successive versions of the UK ‘Snooper’s Charter’ may not have passed into law yet but other measures such as the recent UK ‘DRIP’ bill (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill) are well underway to reaching the law-books despite fierce opposition.

But it is not only governments who are using the Internet against their own citizens. The world’s largest internet corporations also collect and store mountains of our personal data on their systems, mining and manipulating data for market research or product testing purposes, also using terms of use that are considered insufficiently transparent forms of informed consent from the user. For instance, Facebook was recently caught out by users for manipulating user data as part of ‘experimental research’. There has also been a longstanding concern about the way Google collects and stores user data since they renewed their privacy settings in 2012.

As Amnesty International and other NGOs consider the digital implications of human rights abuses; so should technical and legal experts consider the design and legislative implications of recognising that we also have rights and freedoms online: ensuring governments are charged by law with the duty to protect our rights both online and offline.

Official recognition of this point of law, e.g. at the UN (UNHRC resolution from 2012, 2014) is not sufficient. However, the Internet’s inroads into every facet of our computer-saturated societies has been a game-changer. How people use the internet and how these technologies can be used against us have brought huge challenges to existing human rights legislation, at national and international level.

Technical and legal know-how appear to be moving in different directions as political and commercial power-holders (from GCHQ through to Westminster to DC, to Silicon Valley or Seattle) are under pressure to be more accountable for their role in decision-making that has an impact on the Internet today, already seemingly compromised. They also have a major say in decisions about the future design, access, and use of the Internet going on behind the scenes, and behind our screen.

How these specialist and political decisions support an Internet that enables and protects rather than obstructs and abuses the exercise of all our human rights when we are online, are under closer scrutiny than ever before.

As global campaigns, and grassroots awareness-raising about our human rights online gather steam, added pressure is placed on those who introduce policies in the name of cyber- or state security that undermine online rights including freedom of expression and education.

It is the ongoing efforts of policymakers, judges, and NGOs looking to ‘connect the dots’ between technology and how people use the Internet, that is helping to shape international attention for rights online. The recognition from networks including UN Resolutions and The Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition are integral to adequately addressing the issue of human rights online and influencing future policies.

Nevertheless, the revelations keep coming. Ordinary people, employees and managements, educators and students, health professionals and their patients are required to go online more and more to get anything done. But as we do, those who write the terms of use, design the software codes, and set the hardware specifications of the “thinking machines” that permeate our lives can exercise enormous influence on what we do online, where and on whose terms.


Public Debate: Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age, Goldsmiths - Professor Stuart Hall Building, Room LG01: 5.30pm – 8.00pm

The panel is made up of representatives from international human rights HGOS, computer engineers and privacy (h)activists, legal experts, journalists, and critical internet governance scholars. The aim is to take stock from our respective points of view, and to consider together not only the practical and political challenges of defending human rights in a digital age but also what to do about it.

Panelists include:

  • Caspar Bowden, Independent Privacy Researcher
  • Champa Patel, Amnesty International
  • Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International
  • Becky Kazansky, Tactical Technology Collective
  • Hanane Boujemi, Hivos International: MENA region
  • Catherine Easton, University of Lancaster, Internet Rights and Principles Coalition
  • Gavin McFadyen, Centre for Investigative Journalism Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Marianne Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London (Moderator)

Co-organized by the Global Media and Transnational Communications MA Program, School of Journalism's Media Forum, and Radical Media Forum, Department of Media and Communication.


Council of Europe, 2014, Recommendation CM/Rec(2014)6 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on a Guide to human rights for Internet users, adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 16 April 2014 at the 1197th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies;

MI Franklin, “Slacktivism, clicktivism, and “real” social change”, OUP Blog: Oxford University Press's Academic Insights for the Thinking World, November 19th 2014 :

MI Franklin, “DRIP is an abuse of our rights not a matter of national security”, The Conversation, 25 July 2014;

MI Franklin, “Human rights on the Internet: online, you have rights too”, The Guardian: Media Network, July 17, 2013;

MI Franklin, “Like it or not, we are all complicit in online snooping”, The Conversation, 20 June 2013;

Franklin, M. I., 2013, Digital Dilemmas: Power, Resistance, and the Internet, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press

Internet Rights and Principles Coalition (IRP Coalition), 2011, The Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet:

La Rue, Frank, 2011, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Human Rights Council: UN General Assembly, A/HRC/17/27, May 16, 2011,

Necessary and Proportionate.Org, 2013, International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, July 2013;

NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, 2014, NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement of Sao Paulo, 24th April 2014;

United Nations Human Rights Council, 2012, Resolution A/HRC/RES/20/8: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, UN General Assembly: OHCHR,

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