The announcement of Facebook’s metaverse presents a clear integration of our online and offline presence. We are increasingly conducting our daily existence in the digital sphere, from grocery shopping to working from home and socialising. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst to our expanding digital footprint. While the convenience has been well-received by some, there is also a growing concern regarding how our data is being used online, specifically our digital rights.
What are digital rights and what is the risk?
Digital rights are an extension of the fundamental human rights covered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Examples of human rights in the digital realm include universal access to information, communication, freedom of expression, privacy, and data protection. As more data is generated, the issue around protection and privacy intensifies. In recent years, digital rights breaches have had widespread impact, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the incitement to violence in the US Capitol Riots. In conflict-affected countries such as Myanmar, military demands for internet blackouts, surveillance, censorship, and personal information directly infringe on freedom of information, expression, and anonymity.
Regulation on digital rights is constantly evolving
The challenges, complexity and harmful practices of digital rights have led to the evolution of legislative frameworks. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 was a milestone for data protection, giving consumers greater control of their personal data. Similar data privacy laws have now emerged beyond the EU. The EU is paving the way with regulatory crackdown to rein in big tech, with the recent EU Digital Services Act. It aims to hold online platforms accountable for illegal content and algorithmic systems amplifying the spread of disinformation.
This greater regulation is welcomed as big tech companies currently have the power to make decisions on consumers’ freedom of expression and other rights without adequate safeguards. They often operate in an opaque manner with a lack of policies for users to understand their rights, which contributes to the misuse of consumers’ data to generate profit through targeted advertising and algorithms. This has led to calls for better regulation and heightened investor action shown by the rise of shareholder resolutions targeting digital rights risks.
Corporate action on digital rights
What is good practice? Twitter ranks top of the 2020 Ranking Digital Rights Index and is described as ‘the best among the worst’ for its increased transparency on management of government demands to censor content and measures to remove content and account suspension. However, the company still has significant work ahead to achieve best practice status. Telefonica was the only telecommunications company to publish a policy on its responsible use of artificial intelligence, detailing the practical implementation in its operational model. Despite these developments, overall, tech companies are failing to disclose information regarding how they address digital rights, from content moderation, to how they enforce their rules in practice and collect consumer data, indicating this is a systemic issue that requires imminent action.
We expect continued scrutiny on companies active in the digital sphere as stakeholder and regulatory momentum advances. These regulations would radically change the business models of these companies; therefore, those wishing to get ahead to limit potential regulatory fines must act now. As investors, we will continue to exert pressure to increase corporate transparency and accountability of digital rights through our involvement in the Ranking Digital Rights collaboration and the Global Network Initiative.