Reflections on Digital Future – Concluding Remarks


“From Geneva: reflections on digital future”

 Part II: From Geneva: Reflection on Digital Future – concluding remarks

EUSR for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Online event, 15 December 2021, 17:00-17:30





Thank you very much, Lotte. Good afternoon from Brussels.

I want to thank you and thank the EU Delegation in Geneva, thank the Permanent Missions of Slovenia Presidency and Switzerland, and the Geneva Internet Platform for inviting me to participate.

My role is promoting human rights in the external action of the foreign policy of the European Union so I will confine my remarks to that angle. And of course digital issues are increasingly at the forefront of contemporary foreign policy debates.

Geneva in particular, where you are, has become something of a hub for international discussions on digital issues and on the future face of digital technologies. Indeed, Geneva has turned into something of a battleground between different approaches to digital technologies. From the European Union’s perspective, the battle is to secure a human rights approach to the future of new technologies. I think it is probably true to say that the development and the use of new technologies has moved so fast that the implications for people, the human rights implications, has lagged somewhat behind. It is time to put the rights and needs of people back in charge of the technology. New technologies must serve the people. Not the other way around!

The next year I think will be important. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will host key conferences and elections. The newly created multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum Leadership Panel will start its work bringing diverse perspectives to Internet issues. The UN Human Rights Council will continue engaging on tech-related questions, which has now been an integral part of its agenda.

The European Union will work hard on all of these fronts. We cooperate closely with the OHCHR on digital issues. The EU has been involved in the elaboration of the UN Secretary General Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. To seize the opportunities of new technologies and to mitigate the risks, we consider that it is of uttermost importance to identify joint actions in the multilateral fora, involving civil society, involving private actors and all States in the discussions. We are also looking forward to cooperating closely with the new UN Tech Envoy as soon as he or she is appointed.

The European Union has a long record of standing up for human rights worldwide. Because we see human rights as universal, belonging to all people, everywhere. Human rights are the best antidote to violence and conflict. They are key to peace, stability, human security and sustainable development. We are a vocal advocate of human rights in the world: in terms of our funding, in terms of diversity of the instruments that we use, efforts ranging from bilateral Human Rights Dialogues (we have about 60 of them every year), we use it in our trade preferences, in election observations, emergency grants to human rights defenders, and more recently, the use of human rights sanctions.

With the emergence of cyberspace and digital technologies, new human rights dilemmas and questions have come to the fore. And our approach has been to address these as core human rights issues, which apply online, as well as offline. In many respects the human right at issue is not different, it is just that the platform on which it has to be exercised, is different. Internet shutdowns, for example, are really today’s incarnation of old-style, crude censorship of media. Mass surveillance and targeted arbitrary surveillance, including through facial recognition, and the notorious Pegasus spyware, are breaches of the right to privacy. They are not new. And this is just, in many ways, digital spying, digital peeping through the keyhole, invading the privacy of people. Hate speech is not new, but online, I think that it has gathered a new momentum, because of course it can spread information at an unprecedented speed. And then of course, there are the multiple digital gaps, which exist across countries and social groups, which need to be addressed as really part of the process of addressing poverty and marginalization.

These are the new human rights realities. The European Union has been adapting to them, recalibrating some of our policy strategies. The new European Union Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024), which was adopted unanimously by all of our 27 Member States just a year ago, recognizes new technologies as one of the key five priority areas for external human rights policy.

It is not all negative because the European Union strives to harness the potential of new technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, for the better enjoyment of human rights as well as to tackle challenges connected with the rise of digital technologies. Both at home and in our external action. By all actors. As our Action Plan states: “digital technologies must be human-centred”. And indeed the Human Rights Council has repeatedly underlined that “human rights apply both online and offline”. In the face of digital advances, I do not think it is necessary for us to re-define human rights. New and emerging technologies may indeed be sophisticated but the key human rights principle is simple, and that is that the same rights, whether we are talking about political rights, civil rights, economic, social or cultural rights, that individuals already have offline, these must be protected online as well.

This is also the approach, which has guided the development of the European Union’s own internal regulation. Over the last few years, we have established strong standards of protecting data privacy (through General Data Protection Regulation or the GDPR regime, as it is more popularly known), or indeed on combatting hate speech online (where we have a code of conduct negotiated with the social media platforms). The GDPR has become something of a global benchmark. Legislative process is now underway on a new Digital Services Act , which aims to provide for a clear set of due-diligence obligations for online platforms. A key objective in this is to improve users’ safety online, while improving the protection of their fundamental rights. Currently, the European Union is also preparing legislation on Artificial Intelligence with human rights-based rules regulating its design, development, deployment, evaluation and use.

So in today’s complex, intertwined and sometimes, “chaotic digital world”, transnational by nature, it is important to “connect the dots” and stakeholders (and each of us has a stake here, it is not only States and corporate tech giants). The European Union supports a multi-stakeholder model, bringing together civil society, human rights defenders, national authorities, academia, international organisations and the private sector.

I am convinced that a robust human rights framing of digital issues is the only formula, which will enable us to have a sustainable development of technology, which serves all of humanity.

Thank you very much.