Book Review: Human Rights Responsibilities in the Digital Age

March 23, 2022

Law teaching and research relating to digital technologies is given a range of labels: information technology law, Internet law, cyberlaw, and so on. These are often seen as commercial law topics, but those who work in them know that even the most seemingly private law aspects, such as online contracting, will have some human rights dimension (for example, consumer protection). Other topics, such as surveillance or freedom of speech, are clearly rooted in human rights. As technology becomes essential infrastructure, these issues become more pressing. Scholars are tackling the important questions that arise with increasing rigour and greater understanding of both the tools that are used and the vital public policy debates that need to be had. This book is a welcome contribution to that developing engagement by the human rights community with the long-term ramifications of the increasing digitisation of society.

The authors are researchers or practitioners from across Europe, the United States of America, and the Philippines. The topics covered are wide-ranging: cybersecurity, data-intensive government systems, freedom of assembly, predictive policing in Israel and Palestine, the Facebook Oversight Board, workplace privacy, political participation, democratic discourse, harmful and hate speech, and the rights of the child. As is often the case with edited volumes, this is not a comprehensive compilation of all aspects of human rights and digital technologies – indeed, that would be a much larger volume than this. The chapters are independent but very thorough explorations of specific areas, often in a specific geographic or jurisdictional context.

The sub-title of the book is ‘States, Companies and Individuals’. The introduction and some of the chapters (particularly the one dealing with Facebook) bring to the foreground the importance of private entities in either protecting or limiting the exercise of human rights online, something which has become increasingly obvious as the large online service providers accumulate more and more power over what we can say and see online. Others explore human rights issues from an individual perspective, particularly in dealing with hate speech and journalism. Many focus more on the negative than the positive impacts of digital technologies on human rights, with limited discussion of (for example) how the Internet can enable access to information or freedom of speech. That may not be a defect in editorial choices or authorial focus, but rather an accurate reflection of the somewhat grim reality that the sunny optimism that pervaded in Internet policy in the 1990s has faded (as it tends to do with every technology), replaced with the realisation that new tools bring new opportunities for oppression, inequality and abuse.

This is a timely book which will be most useful to those teaching graduate seminars that touch on the issues dealt with, as the level of detail provided is a good foundation for a searching discussion. Researchers may find particular chapters useful for specific topics, as might some practitioners with an interest in compliance or ESG issues.

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Rónán Kennedy, School of Law, National University of Ireland Galway

About the Book

Human Rights Responsibilities in the Digital Age: States, Companies and Individuals

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Edited by Jonathan Andrew and Frédéric Bernard 

  • Published 2021
  • 1st ed, hardback
  • 272 pages
  • ISBN 9781509938834
  • Hart Publishing