ourEconomy: Opinion

21st century human rights are technological, environmental and co-operative

Just like the software in our phones, our traditional human rights must constantly be updated to keep pace with modern times.

Ewan McGaughey
20 November 2019, 10.35pm
Image: Perry Grone, Unsplash

What should human rights become in the 21st century? The Labour Party has proposed giving every household universal, free broadband and a charter of digital rights, funded by taxing big tech platforms. The Conservative Party derides this as a ‘crazed communist scheme’, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 says ‘Everyone has the right... to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’

In a very real sense, Labour’s proposal for universal broadband is creating a 21st century human right, just like proposals for ‘universal basic services’. The rights of the future are technological – to access all services we need to play a full part in society. They are environmental – to live on a living planet. And they are co-operative – to democratise the economy, just like we democratised politics.

20th century rights

Rights are often won at times of mass crisis. In 1944, the US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated a ‘Second Bill of Rights’ for fair wages, fair competition, housing, health, social security, and education. He said that, even if the war was won, if those rights were lost, ‘we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.’ In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt led the drafting of the Universal Declaration, placing those social rights next to political rights of liberty, expression, a fair trial, or property – this was ‘the international Magna Carta of all’. The framers could not see into the future, but knew that technology had to benefit everyone if society were to remain free. With the experience of electrifying rural areas, and distributing the polio vaccine, they knew the law must stop corporations cornering property and raising prices to ensure things like electricity and health were not ‘a privilege of the wealthy few... but a right to be assured to all’.

After WW2, Britain legislated to guarantee social rights, although all have been under attack. Free health is guaranteed through the National Health Service. Free education was guaranteed, until the Dearing Report of 1997 advocated university fees. Social security gives us a minimal state pension, unemployment insurance, and disability benefits, but government’s commitment to full employment was lost in 1979. As the right to freedom of association was attacked, labour’s share of income declined, inequality soared, and wealth concentrated into fewer hands.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

This has given us an increasingly psychotic politics – those of Johnson, Trump, Putin, the AfD, Le Pen or Lega Nord – those who cannot win, except by lying and stealing. The power base of all is oligarchical finance and fossil fuels, and they have attempted to weaponise social media to entrench their position. This is why to protect the human rights of the 20th century, the human rights of the 21st century must start at the source of social problems.

The 21st century right to free internet

Why does broadband matter? Today, giant corporations pay almost nothing in tax that funds the infrastructure needed to give them customers. YouTube (i.e. Google) alone is nearly a fifth of the internet’s traffic. Many of the biggest websites – e.g. YouTube and Facebook – started as free platforms, with content generated by users, not the sites. But then each was enclosed and monetised: Google and Facebook are now the world’s biggest advertisers. Giant corporations expect us to pay for broadband, to access content we often create, so they can commodify our eyeballs with ads, and take our personal data. The proposal for free, universal broadband with a tax on multinational platforms puts this logic the right side up: big business should pay for the privilege of profiting from us, not the other way around.

Just like real highways, it’s cheaper for the information super-highway to be a tax-funded public service. From 2006 to 2018, wholesale line rental costs went down over 40%, but broadband corporations put prices up 40%. The exception was the Post Office, till the Tory-Liberal coalition privatised 60% of its holdings in October 2013. Despite this massive cross-subsidy, private companies invest a pittance: we have under 10% access to fast-fibre broadband. If we don’t pay shareholder profit, or needlessly duplicate electromagnetic signals for artificial competition in this natural monopoly, it’s going to be cheaper.

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 22.12.49.png
Source | Ofcom, Guardian

The technological rights of the 21st century must include everything to ensure people can fully participate in society, where ‘the free and full development of [our] personality is possible.’ The right to broadband is like a 21st century right to freedom of expression. The right to personal data protection is the 21st century right to privacy. The right against algorithmic discrimination or online harassment are the 21st century priorities for the right to equality. These are the components of what Labour is calling a ‘Charter of Digital Rights’. Just like the software in our phones, our traditional human rights must constantly be updated just to keep pace in modern times.

21st century environmental rights

There are also environmental rights. Wind turbines are now cheaper than any other form of energy. Electric cars, vans and buses are now cheaper than fossil fuel vehicles. But we know that if we leave it to the market, the roll-out will be as slow as cars replacing horses: too slow for the climate crisis. The right to share in the benefits of science means government has a duty to change as fast as technically possible. Even more, the right of all peoples to their ‘natural wealth and resources’ means that our air, our oceans, and our land must not be degraded by the fossil-fuel industry.

In domestic and international law, all statutes, all common law rules, must be interpreted in line with these rights. For instance, the deadly Infrastructure Act 2015 section 41 duty of ‘maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum’ cannot be interpreted to let humanity’s future be burned and drowned. Oil must be shut down. It is a human right that our government helps save the planet with a green industrial revolution.

21st century cooperative rights

Then there are cooperative rights. Today the votes in the economy are monopolised by City asset managers and banks. They are the shareholders in major companies. Shareholders control the boards of directors. Boards of directors control our workplaces, our pay, our pensions, and our environment. And the City gets all that control from other people’s labour and ‘other people’s money’.

From the 19th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the unions, and the Suffragettes won freedom of association, and then the vote in politics. This gave us ‘the right to take part in the government’, and that must include our economic as well as our political government. Today’s suffrage movement is about the votes in the economy: the right to vote at work, in our pensions, savings or capital, and in public services. Most OECD countries already have cooperative rights at work. Two US presidential candidates are proposing the same rights, there is an Economic Democracy Directive ready for the EU, and Britain can do it too.

With the right to cooperate at every level of the economy, people will vote to give everyone a fair share of future. It will become a truly ‘sharing economy’.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData