The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy serves as the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain. The center embraces a dual mission: to educate students and the next generation of leaders from around the world in human rights policy and practice; and to convene and provide policy-relevant knowledge to international organizations, governments, policymakers, and businesses.
Human rights are a broad array of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and freedoms that are universal and inalienable, inherent to the dignity of every human being. The application of human rights to digital technologies has generally focused on individual civil and political rights, such as the freedom of expression and privacy. However, as digital technologies evolve beyond traditional information and communications technologies to increasingly mediate access to everything from healthcare to employment, education, and participation in social and cultural life, an increasingly broad array of human rights are implicated. With humanity more reliant on digital tools and technologies than ever before, the stakes have never been more apparent than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Gripped by the magical potential of digital tools and technologies and the allure of simple solutions to complex governance challenges, governments and key stakeholders have adopted an exceedingly limited view of human rights in relation to these technologies, focusing almost exclusively on a narrow set of civil and political rights while virtually ignoring threats to economic, social, and cultural rights. For those already at the margins, this has exacerbated their digital exclusion. This paper calls for a more expansive view of human rights in relation to technology governance. After contextualizing the role of economic, social, and cultural rights in relation to digital technologies, this paper examines how such rights have been largely absent from the discourse around technologies deployed in the pandemic (“pandemic tech”), as well as the consequences of that omission. The paper then explores how a recalibration of human rights in relation to digital technologies, specifically pandemic tech, could help prevent geopolitical fracturing, reorient the conversation around people rather than technology, and provide a critical backstop against the runaway commercialization that threatens the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights by individuals and communities.
To mitigate inefficiencies in manual contact tracing processes, Digital contact tracing and exposure notifications systems were developed for use as public-interest technologies during the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) global pandemic. Effective implementation of these tools requires alignment across several factors, including local regulations and policies and trust in government and public health officials. Careful consideration should also be made to minimize any potential conflicts with existing processes in public health, which has demonstrated effectiveness. Four unique cases—of Ireland, Guayaquil (Ecuador), Haiti, and the Philippines—detailed in this paper will highlight the importance of upholding the principles of Scientific Validity, Necessity, Time-Boundedness, and Proportionality.
In contrast to China’s enormous efforts to upgrade its system of governance to a new technological level built around a stupefying amount of data collection and electronic scoring, countries committed to democracy and human rights did not upgrade their systems. Instead of adjusting democracy and human rights to the new technological possibilities, those countries ended up with surveillance capitalism. It is vital for the sheer survival of those ideas about governance to perform such an upgrade. The present project aims to contribute to that. I propose a framework of epistemic actorhood in terms of four roles, and characterize digital lifeworlds and what matters about them, in terms of both how they fit in with Max Tegmark’s distinction among various stages of human life and how they give rise to their own episteme and the data episteme, with its immense possibilities of infopower (vocabulary inspired by Foucault). A set of epistemic rights that strengthen existing human rights—as part of a fourth generation of rights—is needed to protect epistemic actorhood in those roles, which would be a long way towards performing this kind of upgrade. In the long run, as we progress into Life 3.0, we need a new kind of human right, the right to the exercise of genuinely human intelligence. The good news is that, to the extent that we can substantiate the meaning of human life in the uncaring world that natural science describes, we can substantiate such a right vis-à-vis nonhuman intelligent life. We must hope that arguments of this sort can persuade a superior intelligence—which is by definition, massively beyond ours, and hard to anticipate.
“The Carr Center is building a bridge between ideas on human rights and the practice on the ground. Right now we are at a critical juncture. The pace of technological change and the rise of authoritarian governments are both examples of serious challenges to the flourishing of individual rights. It’s crucial that Harvard and the Kennedy School continue to be a major influence in keeping human rights ideals alive. The Carr Center is a focal point for this important task.”
- Mathias Risse