Digital rights, essential in the Internet age
In the era of digitalisation, law needs to be adapted to protect and safeguard fundamental rights. Digital rights, closely linked to freedom of expression and privacy, are those that allow people to access, use, create and publish digital media, as well as access and use computers, other electronic devices and communications networks.
Digital technologies are transforming the way basic rights such as freedom of expression and access to information are exercised, protected and violated, and are also leading to the recognition of new rights. The law is therefore adapting to this new era with the development of digital rights and digital citizenship, allowing and regulating access to online information in a secure and transparent manner.
Technological advances are constant and each brings with it the need for a new regulatory framework.The hyperconnectivity that 5G facilitates, the collection of data with devices from the Internet of Things, the analysis of the same with Big Data and the use of Edge Computing for processing, among others, generate the need to regulate this traffic of information, guaranteeing the rights of individuals.
In addition to the evolution of the legislative framework, these advances also invite the development of digital ethics that prevent the violation of rights. Ethical considerations are relevant in cases such as the "digital will", which determines what to do with the digital presence of the deceased; "digital disconnection", which limits the use of digital communications outside working hours; or digital rights management (DRM), where authors' remuneration and free access to artistic works whose rights have already expired come into conflict.
What digital rights are. Origin
Cyber-rights recognise the right of individuals to access, use, create and publish digital media, and the right of access to the computers, electronic devices and telecommunications networks necessary to exercise them. One of the flagships in the defence of cyber-rights is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit organisation founded by Internet activists John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore.
In 1996, in an article entitled A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace External link, opens in new window., Barlow highlighted the discrepancy between the fundamental rights enshrined in the US Constitution and the violation of citizens' rights on the Internet. For example, in the 1990s the postal service was inviolable, but email was not. The EFF's work defending these cases in court laid the foundation for the international recognition of cyber-rights.
What digital rights are for
Digital rights are merely an extension of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations as applied to the online world. Its main objective is to guarantee access to the Internet, avoiding the so-called digital divide, and a proper use of the network as a common asset belonging to the whole of humanity. However, the lack of international consensus beyond a resolution on human rights on the internet has led each country to develop its own Digital Rights Charter.
Despite this, supranational bodies such as the European Union (EU) are proposing a common framework, at least with regard to the right to personal data protection. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in 2018, obliges member countries both to preserve citizens' personal data and to allow the free movement of data. In the USA, by contrast, there is no federal data protection law and each state applies different regulations. There are more than 120 countries in the world that have some kind of legislation protecting personal data and access to information on the Internet. In 2022, the European Commission made a Declaration on the protection of the rights of its citizens in the digital world, which covers the rights of all European citizens.
Types of digital rights
Although each country is developing its own Digital Rights Charter, there are some general guidelines that all countries follow and which we review below:
Universal and equal access
People should be able to access the Internet regardless of their income, their geographical location or their disabilities. The UN Human Rights Council recognises in a report that the right of access is essential to freedom of opinion and cities such as Mexico City already have programmes to establish a free internet network.
Freedom of expression, information and communication
These basic human rights are threatened on the Internet when governments block websites or social networks, which is a violation of the right to communication and free association, or censor content, which is contrary to freedom of expression and information.
Privacy and data protection
Citizens must have control over who stores their personal data and be able to delete them at any time. The right to privacy is threatened on the Internet by the theft of credentials, the appropriation of personal data and their use for financial gain, etc.
Right to anonymity
The right to anonymity and encryption of communications is particularly threatened in those countries that prohibit the sending of encrypted messages and communications, which is necessary for reliable and secure transactions on the Internet.
Right to be forgotten
This is the right to have a person's private information removed from Internet searches, databases and directories. It is currently recognised by the EU in the GDPR as a 'right to delete' and it has already been invoked in other countries such as Argentina, the US, South Korea and India.
Protection of minors
Governments must not only ensure the protection of children on the Internet, as in the case of child pornography, but also ensure that companies provide the means to guarantee safe access without infringing the rights of children.
Authors must be guaranteed recognition of their artistic or literary work and the right to be remunerated for its use, while guaranteeing free access to works that are already in the public domain.
Cybersecurity and how to act if digital rights are violated
Cybersecurity is essential to ensure the freedom of individuals to exercise their digital rights, for example by preserving their privacy through encryption of communications. But how should we act if digital rights are violated? That is, when a company sells or discloses our personal data or there is unauthorised access, among others. In most countries with cyber-rights legislation, such offences can be brought to court. In the case of the EU, the member countries have bodies such as the European Data Protection Committee (EDPC) or authorities like the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) that investigate and prosecute infringements, imposing sanctions that can reach hundreds of thousands of euros for the most serious ones.
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