Many people who read “East West Street” by Philippe Sands QC, may have been surprised to learn it was the horrors of the Second World War which propelled the international community – as represented by politicians, mainly elected ones – to come together and formulate a set of magnificent documents which would constitute the core of what we now recognise as international “human rights law”.
The Charter of the United Nations was adopted in October 1945. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Many human rights instruments which emerged in the ensuing years can be traced to these two seminal, post-war moments and arguments heard or developed at the Nuremberg Trials.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Beginning in 1979 the Polish Government initiated the processes which, in 1989, led to the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
What do all of the above have in common? They predate the internet and the massive availability of digital technologies. In astonishing ways which would have been hard to predict even twenty years ago, never mind in 1948, digital technologies have changed the way we live.
In the case of the UNCRC, the language used is so out of step with the contemporary realities of children’s lives a “General Comment” has been commissioned to act as an aid to interpretation, specifically in respect of the digital environment. You have until 15th November to make your views known.
The General Comment is not going to change any of the words or principles set out in the UNCRC. There is no need for that. As with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the values it enshrines are eternal. Or ought to be. But, as with the UNCRC, so also with the Universal Declaration and similar. We have to start adjusting how we approach matters in a way which is consonant with the digital age. Some of the habits and ways of thinking developed in the analogue era are now obsolete or obsolescent.
There is nothing new under the sun
There has always been crime. There have always been threats to children, the weak, the gullible, the ill-educated or illiterate. Threats to national security and democratic processes are not entirely novel. But the speed, scale, complexity, and the international dimension to the kind of behaviours the internet has facilitated have created enormous difficulties yet to be solved. They will not be solved by people who believe this nonsense:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
It was singularly apt that this “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” was made, in 1996, on or around the tenth anniversary of and perfectly reflecting Ronald Reagan’s immortal contribution to political thought. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’.” And where was this utterly up-itself Reaganist utterance made? Davos. Where else?
Governments are a long way from being perfect instruments of, well, almost anything, but they are all that the vast majority of people have or can turn to when faced with overwhelming or complex threats to the commonwealth.
The highly educated, tech savvy activists will always or at any rate generally be able to look after themselves in cyberspace. Governments are for the rest of us. The challenge here is, through the ballot box and our own engagement with political processes, to make those processes better not give up on them by ceding territory to the geeks. Elections are our shareholder meetings where nobody has a super veto.
The tide is turning
In every democratic country in the world the tide is turning. In the USA there is EARN IT. Section 230 has been trimmed back and will be trimmed further. In the EU the Digital Services Act hoves into view. In the UK the Online Harms White Paper will soon be upon us. Look at Germany, France, Australia and many other places. Why now?
Knowledge of the internet is being democratised
Historically, too few judges, politicians, policy makers, mainstream journalists and community activists had a good understanding of the internet or the underpinning technology. It emerged so fast. We were awe struck and dazzled. To quote Arthur C Clarke, this stuff really did look like “magic”. We fell for the Silicon Valley schtick.
The techie magicians might have worn jeans and T-shirts, but we now know that was only to hide the suits as the early idealism was smothered by Wall Street.
Knowledge of the internet has been democratised by our experience of it. People are no longer intimidated by the jargon. Democracy trumps technocracy when it comes to social policy and we all now know the social consequences of tech matter. Hugely.
Do I have blind faith in all political institutions and the police and security services which are meant to serve them? Of course not. Only an idiot would think that. Look at Snowden and Echelon.
This is a question that is almost as old as the hills. All public institutions and Big Tech must be bound by laws and we must develop effective, independent transparency regimes to ensure those laws are being routinely kept not routinely broken. But equally we must not cut off our noses to spite our faces until we reach that happy point.