The tie between digital rights and human dignity: why it’s vital for our time

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The tie between digital rights and human dignity: why it’s vital for our time

Philip Lee is general secretary of  WACC. In a Q and A first published by the World Council of Churches, he reflects on some of the questions that will be explored during the upcoming international symposium “Communication for Social Justice in the Digital Age,” scheduled for 13-15 September.

How are so-called “digital rights” really, in fact, human rights? 

Lee: Digital rights are shorthand for any aspects of the digital technology landscape that can be bettered by bringing into the open or removing government, corporate, or ideological obstacles to freedom of expression. Such obstacles relate to accessibility and affordability, but also to ownership and control of personal data and digital platforms, the secretive world of algorithms, and to the extent people understand how media work.

What will happen if we simply ignore digital rights?

Lee: Digital rights raise moral and ethical questions that – if ignored – diminish people’s sense of the human dignity of other people. In fact, digital rights resonate profoundly with the larger field of communication rights that WACC has promoted for more than fifty years. My hope is that participants in the symposium will come to recognize and understand the intricacies of the digital era and actively pursue ways of tackling imbalances and injustices.

What are some of the most serious challenges the world is facing with regard to digital technologies? 

Lee: The gravest challenges include the ways governments and their security services are adapting digital technologies to covert surveillance and to mass control. This includes the ability to connect digital networks globally without people being aware. In other words, an almost total lack of transparency. In addition, the global economy is subject to digital manipulations that enable the rich to become richer and which impact the lives and livelihoods of the majority poor. Every aspect of life today is filtered through digital interfaces overseen or controlled by forces that have profit as their guiding principle. A serious challenge is how ordinary people can come together – as different parts of civil society – to challenge the iniquities and inequities of this new globalized system.

Can you share an example of how, at least in some ways, churches can be at the forefront in using digital technologies in ways that bring about justice?

Lee: An obvious recent example of the impact of digital technologies relates to information about the COVID-19 global pandemic. While many governments, international, and national organizations have continuously put out accurate and helpful information, there are numerous instances of misinformation as well as lies circulated via social media. Fortunately, there is a positive side: many civil society organizations – including the churches – as well as public service media have been able to help rebuild trust in information and sources by harnessing the very same digital technologies. Despite the heavy losses worldwide, people’s lives have also undoubtedly been saved through the wide range of information made available and the speed with which stories of hope can circulate. We must always question the values inherent in any technology—and change what is harmful.

Photo above: Philip Lee, by Albin Hillert/WCC