Are human rights respected in the digital world?

Digitalisation has brought huge benefits, but with it has come an erosion of basic human rights. Media coverage, or its absence, is part of the problem. This was the message from a one-day conference held as part of the Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era project.

By Antoine Blua

Dita Horochovska, a quadriplegic since birth, is the first person to have used voice technologies in the Czech Republic. For over a decade the 34-year-old has trained dozens of people with limited mobility across the country to work with computers using their voice, and has assisted researchers to develop new smart home technology. Thanks to such technology, the 34-year-old is now able to control a range of common household equipment such as windows and televisions.  

Speaking on the sidelines of the October 24 Prague conference on Media and Human Rights in the Digital Age ( ), she pointed out the importance of technology in helping disabled people give way to an active life, as well as privacy. 

“Technology is key for my private life. It is my only private space because I always need the help of another person, and technology opens to me a space that is just mine. It also helps the people who assist me because then they can also have their private time.” 

Raising awareness of technology-linked issues

At the conference, researchers presented the findings of a new survey about how Czech news media workers perceive the impact of new technologies on human rights. The research, led by Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, was carried out last summer by the Prague Center for Media Skills and other organisations. The survey was supported by Norwegian funding, and was part of a wider project aimed at raising awareness of the impact of technology on human rights among the public.  

“We have all experienced how digital tools can be helpful in our daily lives, but if misused they can also pose a threat to individuals, to businesses and to our societies. It is therefore essential that new technologies are used to support, and not limit, open societies and fact-based discussions,” Norwegian Ambassador Victor Ronneberg said in his opening speech. (

A total of 626 Czech journalists and other news media professionals participated in last summer’s survey, filling a questionnaire about their work, how technology is used in their jobs, and to what degree their work takes into account issues such as digital exclusion or the requirements of people with special needs. 

According to the final results (
), the majority of journalists and media workers (58 percent) do not believe that human rights can be enforced on the Internet. Just over a quarter (26 percent) feel the Internet needs special treatment, while only 6 percent of respondents are convinced that rights which apply outside the Internet and social media are observed in the online environment. 

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the respondents believe that creating content for and about people with a disability should be the responsibility of private and public media. However, less than a fifth declared that the outputs of their media outlets are accessible to people with visual and hearing disabilities. 

“I think it is helpful that at least they are aware of the contradiction between what they should be doing and what they actually produce,” said Katerina Turkova, researcher at the Institute of Communication Technology and Journalism of the Faculty of Social Sciences. 

Breaking down barriers 

Horochovska and other speakers at the conference touched upon the immense possibilities that artificial intelligence and other digital technologies can offer to create opportunities and advancement in fields such as medicine, engineering, and communication, helping transform society for the better. 

Via her organization, The Power Of Voice ( ), Horochovska provides others free teaching of how to use myVoice, a program that allows users to control their computer and any program written for the MS Windows operating system, move the mouse cursor, use an Internet browser, receive and send e-mails, and dictate text documents. A separate program enables her to open the front door or a window, switch on her TV or the light in the bathroom. (

Czech authorities and the state have paid for her microphone and the software that allows her tocontrol her computer, but she needed to find sources of funding for other equipment. 

Horochovska’s experience is an example of how artificial intelligence and other digital technologies can be used to create unprecedented opportunities. But if developed unthoughtfully, new technologies can generate violations of human rights in areas such as digital identity, privacy and civil rights, participants in the Prague conference insisted. 

Building a tech future aligned with human rights 

Jana Pattynova, partner at Pierstone, a law firm focused on technology and privacy issues, said the European Union is “taking the lead in how to regulate the Internet and on how to enforce human rights” online. ( )

Digital technologies “are so efficient and become such important tools for businesses and government” that only “powerful” regulators are able to regulate them,” she said, adding: “If you look at artificial intelligence, it is not so widely spread and you may not see a disfunction of human rights but you can foresee that in the future.” 

She cited as challenges the vast use of data, as well as the “disbalance between the service providers and users. “If you are using a platform, they know much more about you than you know about the functioning of that platform. There’s also a potential bias that is embedded in an algorithm, meaning that if you fall into certain nationality or race you may be subject to prejudicial treatment.”

According to Pattynova, the proposed AI Act setting out rules for the development and use of
artificial intelligence-driven products, services and systems within the EU “is really pioneer” because it would “completely ban certain technologies, for example biometric identification like face recognition in public spaces, or subliminal techniques.” (

Antoine Blua is a Prague-based freelance reporter