Cyberspace and digital technologies

World Ethical Data Forum 2022

Video message by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

‘Cyberspace and digital technologies: A new impetus for human rights’


Good morning from Brussels. It is a great pleasure to address the 2022 World Ethical Data Forum.

The ethical use of data to prevent violations of fundamental rights in the digital world is now a natural part of our human rights agenda.

The world today is increasingly digital. Increasingly shaped by new technologies. New technologies are enablers of human rights. But human rights are also violated online and through sophisticated technologies.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent; that they are applicable to anyone, anywhere. Ever since the advent of cyberspace and the Internet, we emphasize that human rights apply both offline and online. In the 21st century, digital technologies have transformed the way we live and work. The need for taking a human rights perspective on data and digital technologies is constantly growing.

The European Union seeks to harness opportunities and address challenges of new technologies also through its Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024), the key strategic roadmap directing Europe’s human rights efforts in the world.

The European Union continues to advocate for an Internet which is open, un-fragmented, free, safe, and secure for everyone as well as for the respect of privacy both offline and online. We advocate for human-centric new technologies maximizing the realization of human rights for all, everywhere. It is essential for all of us who are working to promote human rights online to highlight the positive aspects of an open, free, inclusive and secure digital environment. Of course, access to digital services and tools is not equal. Differences remain between those in cities and those in rural areas, between the elderly and the young, between men and women, between those with high income and the ones with less socio-economic resources. Greater efforts have to be made to close the digital gap, which has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every day, in human rights work, new technologies help us document police violence or a crackdown on peaceful protestors. Digital technologies can help us remedy violations of human rights and international humanitarian law; digital technologies can help bringing justice to its victims through the data they provide. Satellite imagery can identify perpetrators of violations and abuses of human rights in real time.

Indeed, data and knowledge technologies can play a crucial role in gathering evidence and ensuring accountability. Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has restated the importance and urgency for this. And data can play a role in the fight against impunity; not only in Ukraine, but all around the world.

Whereas technological innovations can be used for the better enjoyment of human rights or for preventing human rights violations, they can also endanger human rights. We have seen new technologies in the hands of autocrats or powerful private corporations creating challenges for human rights and democracy.

For example, mass data and digital technologies are being used to threaten the security and integrity of States, manipulate the information environment, interfere in democratic processes or curtail human rights. Internet shutdowns are on the rise, whether they be a blanket blockage of the Internet, a blockage of certain websites or services, or a limitation of the bandwidth. Access Now has documented that in 2021, at least 182 shutdowns occurred in 34 countries, either in the context of elections or repression of peaceful protests. We have to bear in mind that online crackdowns always go hand in hand with “offline” violations. Recently, the European Union together with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights launched a joint #InternetShutdowns campaign on social media to raise attention to the human rights violations stemming from this practice.

We are also concerned about the impact of digital technologies on civil society organisations and human rights defenders. The pandemic brought a considerable increase in digital threats, as well as an increase in attacks on tools and services needed now to develop human rights defence work, such as online meeting platforms.

The European Union protects human rights defenders at risk in cyber-space or through new technologies. Our emergency measures in the field of digital security are provided through the Human Rights Defenders Mechanism These emergency measures aim to address the most pressing threats and risks resulting from attacks on human rights defenders’ communications, hacking of personal and professional information, lack of adequate security equipment, and online surveillance. In 2021, for instance, our emergency grants for digital security and protection were awarded to 130 human rights defenders.

Not only are some defenders explicitly targeted, but large-scale, corporate data breaches and security incidents have indirectly affected human rights work at the global level. In 2021, evidence emerged of the Pegasus spyware being used against thousands of individuals, including human rights defenders, journalists and politicians.

As the digital and human rights agenda grows exponentially all around the world, the European Union has taken a leading role in regulating the digital sphere in accordance with international human rights law standards. As the European Union is the world’s biggest single market, our regulations have a significant global impact.

To protect the right to privacy online, we have adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR). The new Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act will boost the rights of all internet users, hold online platforms accountable and curb hate speech and disinformation. The EU Artificial Intelligence Act, currently in the legislative process, seeks to promote cutting-edge, but also human-centric and trustworthy AI.

At the same time, we emphasize the centrality of the United Nations system and multilateralism to identify joint solutions. The United Nations remains the essential forum where new measures and new standards in the digital sphere are discussed and developed, in full compliance with international human rights law. The Secretary General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation is an excellent blueprint for action, calling on the United Nations system, UN Member States, civil society and private sector to work together to ensure greater connectivity, digital inclusiveness, and to foster a human-centric digital sphere.

Next year, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the past seven and a half decades, rapid, world-changing developments in data and knowledge technologies have broadened the ecosystem of human rights. Let us celebrate it. Today, we continue working on the protection and promotion of the same rights the Universal Declaration has ushered in, but are applying them also in a whole new digital environment. This requires our renewed action. And this makes human rights as relevant as ever.

I am looking forward to studying the highlights of the World Ethical Data Forum.

Thank you.