Human rights in cyberspace

Web services as governments, personal data as human beings, UN Charta, Alternatives

This post explores why web services are structurally close to governments, why personal data might be perceived as human beings and how that affects human rights followed by some ideas about how to improve the situation.


Web services as governments

Technically, human rights allow citizens to defend themselves against the state. They are the foundation of all other rules of law even though they are primarily binding the state in its actions, not any private individuals or businesses like big tech corporations. However, big tech indeed shares certain similarities with nation states what makes them stand out from other companies.

  1. A nation is defined by 3 core attributes that are a national territory, state authority / sovereignty and its people. However, those defining criteria have been established long before the information age and might need to be reviewed in the light of people spending most of their lives in cyberspace.

  2. People: With billions of users these corporations grew into the most powerful organisations on the planet superseding the resources of most nation states in terms of financial resource, talent, influence over media (they actually are the media), access and control over frontier technology (quantum compute, AI, robotics, bio) and data.

  3. Authority: Just like governments they are orchestrating large economies by setting and executing the rules besides providing dispute resolution services. The closest analogy to their governance model would be an oligarchy that is controlled by its shareholders. The oligarchs are collecting 'taxes' of 30%+ on their economy's GDP and tend to exploit both sides of their respective markets.

  4. Big tech government: Big tech's relationship to governments is ambivalent. On the one hand they started to offer products that are directly competing with public services like money creation and central banking (Libra), identity services (facebook, google log in) or moderation and censorship of content. In other areas the governments (secret services) were outsourcing some technical tasks what led to the formation of surveillance and censorship alliances. In China this relation has become quite obvious, in the western world less so but the results will be the same.

Personal data as human beings

As argued in 'The past controls the future' our personal data are not just data. They are not just a soul less asset we can buy and sell somewhere to someone. Our personal data are precise digital representations of ourselves, of our interests, skills, health - and mental conditions, social networks, financial life, political sentiments, religious believes, conscience, psyche, fears, desires and thoughts.

Our personal data are us and we are them.

If this narrative holds up our children will at some point look back to the first half of the 21st century and declare it as 'the dark ages of the information age'. Under this narrative we are facing tremendous human rights violations. I'm quoting the UN human rights Charta below with some examples - none of this is legally sound.

Equality in dignity and and rights (Art. 1)

'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.'

Dignity is a legal term that is tough to define and there are different methodologies available to do that but I won't bother you with it. In essence a violation of human dignity occurs whenever humans are treated as more 'objects' - under complete discretion of another person, as a mere number of a collective in such way that any conscious and moral or even physical existence is taken away from him.

In cyberspace humans aren't customers but products. They are 'consumers' that are 'targeted' by algorithms and later 're-activated' if they don't purchase enough. Companies are measuring the stickiness of their products in terms of 'retention and churn rates'. If not other people at least algorithms controlled by other people are clearly treating humans as mere objects in the above sense.

Right to liberty (Art.4)

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

What is slavery? The condition in which one person is owned as property by another and is under the owner's control, especially in involuntary servitude. Our personal data is clearly treated as the property of corporations. Whenever we want to move to another service we would lose all of our history (search, transactions, interactions), reputation (followers) and identity. One might argue that we didn't end up in big tech monopolies involuntarily. However, most people didn't understand the long term implications when signing up for facebook in 2010 - so they might have started to use the service voluntarily but now they got increasingly stuck because of network effects, social and economic dependencies. Consumer software is designed in such ways that it addresses our brainstem - colours and social approval make it highly addictive. Where do we draw the line between voluntary and involuntary? Users are producing all of the content on social media, they serve the network - at least unconsciously. And that data is continuously sold to the highest bidder, a form of algorithmic slave trade?

Right to privacy (Art. 12)

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.

Everything we do online is being tracked without our explicit consent or understanding. Every message can be read. Every social relationship is transparent. There is no online privacy in cyberspace.

Freedom of thought (Art. 19)

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;

Freedom of thought might be the most fundamental right as it is closely linked to other liberties like freedom of speech or movement. Freedom of thought can be compromised through censorship, misinformation, propaganda or burning books. Today's web is dominated by hate speech, misinformation, propaganda and censorship - we live in a post truth world. At the same time technology is just a tool and historically there have always been opportunities for the powerful to manipulate the mob.

Queen Elizabeth I revoked a thought censorship law in the late sixteenth century, because, according to Sir Francis Bacon, she did "not [like] to make windows into men's souls and secret thoughts".

This noble attitude has surely been overcome. To use Mark Zuckerberg's words: 'They trust me. Dumb Fucks.'.

What to do?

Quite a few things.

  1. Opt out: Doing nothing and watch cat videos on instagram will be the default. However, more and more people in tech start to care and start to abandon big tech services (so did I). Staying on the sideline and denying progress can't be a long term option though as the groups with the best technologies have always won.

  2. Regulation: In western countries it's en vogue to criticise big tech and ask the nanny state for help. I don't think this is going to work. Big tech is operating globally and nation states are limited to their jurisdictions with no leverage. Maybe some UN or G20 activities might have an impact long term, maybe not. Regulation tends to make things worse despite good intentions like we are seeing with GDPR.

  3. Markets: There is growing demand for alternative products that are enhancing privacy like ad blockers, VPN services, no-track search engines, browsers or anonymous messaging apps. As long as big tech is benefiting from its incredible network effects those services aren't likely to serve billions of people and won't become a de facto standard. Unless a new computational paradigm comes along what leads us to...

  4. Technology: We are at the verge of the next big computational paradigm shift. We've seen some of those over the past century when transitioning from the hardware to the software era and from there to the web era. Each of those cycles was going through phases of implementation, growth and consolidation before the next open platform was born what led to collapsing prices, new services and companies. Web3 is such a pivotal platform shift and I believe technology will be the strongest driver to clean up the mess we're in. Innovators and developers faced with direct competition or de-platforming risks will adopt it first followed by early end users. It's a long way to go but taking the first steps is what counts right now.

How do you think about human rights and governance in cyberspace? If you're building a piece of technology that might contribute to re-establish human rights in the 21st century please reach out.