The research is part of the Global Digital Justice programme organized by Oxfam Intermón and the Directorate for Global Justice of Barcelona City Council. (Photo: Ales Nesetril/Unsplash )
A report led by UOC researchers for Oxfam Intermón's Global Digital Justice programme and Barcelona City Council looks at alternative models for digitization proposed by civil societies around the world
The researchers have mapped 226 initiatives that have promoted human rights relating to digital technologies over the past two decades in more than 60 countries
The proposals studied aim to guarantee the digital rights of users of new technologies and people who are directly or indirectly affected by their use
The process of digitization and the headway made by new technologies in recent decades have taken place at different speeds depending on the societies in each country and in each cultural and political environment. This situation has also affected developments and progress in citizens' digital rights, as they have been imposed in different ways in each different social framework.
A new study involving researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has examined the various initiatives that have promoted human rights related to digital technologies in the last two decades. The research is part of the Global Digital Justice programme organized by Oxfam Intermón and the Directorate for Global Justice of Barcelona City Council.
"The main objective was to produce an initial map of initiatives that have promoted human rights related to digital technologies, and to outline some of the emancipatory horizons which these alternatives are focused on, or which they could converge around," said Antonio Calleja, the coordinator of the Tecnopolítica research unit in the Communication Networks & Social Change (CNSC) research group in the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the UOC, and the lead author of the study. Ekaitz Cancela and Marta Cambronero, who are currently working on their PhDs in the group, were also involved in the study.
Types of digital rights
Digital rights are considered to be the extension of human rights applied in the digital era, and in particular they are related to privacy, freedom of expression and access to the internet, among many others. In conceptual terms, it is possible to distinguish between three groups of rights in this field. First, there are rights in the digital sphere, which are considered to be pre-existing rights that have been transferred to the digital environment.
Second, there are strictly digital rights or technological rights, which are rights focusing on defining the relations between individuals or groups and new situations, including the internet, digital data, and artificial intelligence systems. Finally, there are rights affected by the digital sphere, which are related to how new digital technologies impact on pre-existing rights in society. "These three types of digital rights often overlap," Calleja pointed out.
Hegemonic models of digitization
Furthermore, in order to highlight the alternatives to the hegemonic models of digitization and the development of digital rights proposed by civil societies around the world, the authors have adopted a geopolitical perspective when examining some of the characteristics of the various models on which the deployment of technology has been based, and their impact on the global 'peripheries'.
"One of the similarities that we've emphasized in particular is that the success of Big Tech in the United States owes as much to the state as it does to these companies, as the US government has followed a political, economic and legal strategy of state support for its technological flagships, both nationally and internationally," said Calleja. Whereas, market logic has been promoted more heavily in the European Union, and the role of the public sector to directly stimulate the European tech corporations has been limited.
Another issue which the study focuses on is state surveillance using new technologies. "Both the US and China have developed surveillance programmes ranging from the NSA programmes which Edward Snowden revealed, to China's Social Credit System. Meanwhile, the EU is playing an ambiguous role as it is capable of initiatives such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) while at the same time engaging in militarization and intensive technological surveillance on its borders," said Calleja.
Initiatives to defend digital rights
After examining more than 226 cases in 64 countries over the last 20 years, the experts explain that there is currently a growing number of initiatives designed by collectives, social movements, NGOs, cooperatives, etc. that criticize and propose alternatives to the hegemonic models of digitization which have been established by the large tech companies and the US and Chinese governments.
"These initiatives aim to guarantee the rights of people who produce, use, or who in more general terms are affected by digital technologies, either directly or indirectly", said Calleja. However, these initiatives have various constraints and have to fight against large corporations with well-established positions and government support. "For this reason, it's essential to create alliances between these social initiatives at multiple scales, ranging from the local to the global, and to work with the public sector wherever the situation is favourable."
In the experts' opinion, in the case of Europe, "we urgently need greater recognition and encouragement for these initiatives, and we must seek to work with them to outline models for digitization that are different from the digital capitalism driven by the big tech corporations, such as Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Alphabet, and their Chinese counterparts".
For example, at the geographical, technological and political level, the report suggests that given the current global division into two poles around the US and China, "it's essential to explore alliances between social and governmental actors that are aligned in narrative and practical terms in alternative ways, and against the vectors of hegemonic digitization that drive digital monoculturalism, patriarchy, racism, neocolonialism, authoritarianism and capitalism, and instead construct on the basis of interculturality, feminism, anti-racism, decoloniality, democratization, and ecosocialism". Such a scenario "is unlikely today, but in view of the various conflicts, debates and crises facing contemporary societies, perhaps it isn't impossible," said Calleja.
With this in mind, the researchers propose emancipatory horizons to resolve the current conflicts that digitized societies face. First, technological-political democratization, based on processes led by social stakeholders and the public sector which promote the democratization of technologies and politics. Second, digital socialism, considered in terms of a mode of economic production based on collective control over technological systems in order to ensure an equitable and fair distribution of the problems and benefits of those technologies. "Finally, the third horizon attempts to place the two previous horizons in the context of the biosphere, the planet and its limits, and focuses on a sort of digital ecosocialism", Calleja explained.
This study will be available in two versions, for academic and non-academic audiences, with an interactive map of initiatives in the field of digital rights. "We believe it can be useful for exploring this subject, and we hope it can be enhanced and expanded in the future," Calleja concluded.
This research by the UOC supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4, Quality Education; 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; and 10, Reduced Inequalities.
Calleja-López, A., Cancela, E., Cambronero, M. (2022, December). Desplazar los ejes: alternativas tecnológicas, derechos humanos y sociedad civil a principios del siglo XXI. Tecnopolítica Working Papers No. 1. Available at: https://tecnopolitica.net/en/content/desplazar-los-ejes-alternativas-tecnologicas-derechos-humanos-y-sociedad-civil-principios
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Researcher in the CNSC group (IN3)