Digital technologies are part of everyday life, but we don’t know much about how they impact our rights. A Czech-Norwegian project aims to change this.

Digital rights organisation IuRe, in cooperation with other Czech non-profit and public sector partners, has launched a new project, Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era. The project’s purpose is to alert the public about how digital technologies can encroach on their human rights. In a first for the Czech Republic, the consortium will carry out in-depth research amongst journalists to measure their level of awareness on the issue. The findings will be used to develop specialised, bespoke training for media professionals.

Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era, which is unique in connecting new technologies, digitalisation, human rights and journalism, is a direct response to the experience of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic. Like everywhere else, the pandemic brought a huge expansion in the use of digital tools in citizens’ personal and professional lives. At the same time, it highlighted the risks that come with the digital transformation.

People who dont have the technology or dont know how to use it have begun to drop out of society. Some people had problems with registering online for vaccination, some children werent able to access online schooling”, says IuRe’s Jan Vobořil, who is also a digital exclusion adviser to the Government Council for Human Rights’ Committee for Human Rights and Modern Technologies.

The project will begin by interviewing people who have restricted access to the internet or  limited capacity to use it, which makes it hard for them to participate in an increasingly digital world. Findings from this qualitative survey will form the basis for further research to map how journalists across the Czech Republic understand the impact of digitalisation on society.

The role of journalists and media in general is changing hugely under pressure from the spread of digital technologies. Machine learning and algorithms are not only directly involved in creating video and text in some cases, but they also determine what, when and to whom they will be displayed in the personalised environment of internet media”, comments television journalist and university teacher Václav Moravec. His interest in the topic led him to establish the Center for Artificial Intelligence Journalism at Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences several years ago. The Faculty is a member of the project consortium and will be leading this research. “What Czech journalists actually know about digital technologies has never been examined in detail before. Our findings here will be unique”, Moravec emphasises.

The journalistic community and the wider public will be provided with regular updates on the project’s results and findings by partner organisation the Prague Center for Media Skills (PCMS). Protecting human rights in a dynamically changing world demands we ensure the digital revolution serves society and not the other way around. That is why it so essential to listen to people from vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or people with special needs, who are often negatively affected by digitalisation and the introduction of new technologies”, explains Adriana Dergam, project leader for PCMS. She adds: “We will include the views of these groups in both research and educational materials. We also plan to involve them in our awareness campaigns and as speakers at our conferences”.

In another first, research findings will be incorporated into a special course on digital technologies and human rights for undergraduate students of journalism at the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences. Course content will come under the supervision of Alžběta Krausova at the Institute of State and Law of the Czech Academy of Sciences. As a member of the European expert group, she has in the past been involved in formulating rules regarding the liability of artificial intelligence systems for any damage caused by them. “In addition to the university course, we will develop online training which will be available for free to both professionals and the general public. The aim is to raise awareness of the impact of technology on human rights, why discrimination may occur in artificial intelligence decision-making, for example, or how to use technology to help us defend our rights , Krausova explains.

All the project’s activities will receive continuous consultancy and support from Electronic Frontier Norway. Along with IuRe, EFN is part of an extensive network of European digital-legal organisations which have long called for more attention to be given to the protection of human rights in the digital environment. Their involvement will help spread the results of the project to a wider group of international stakeholders. “The digital rights movement started with computer geeks in the nineties as a shared set of beliefs. We understood later that all the ideas we shared had a strong underpinning in human rights. Digital rights is just Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era and that is EFNs core mission,” says Tom Fredrik Blenning, executive director of EFN.

Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Era has launched just a few weeks after the European Commission presented its draft Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles. This includes basic principles such as that digital connectivity should be universal, available everywhere and for everyone, and that the user should always know how their personal data is being used and to whom it is being made available. The draft also contains the provision that employees have the right to remain “disconnected” outside working hours. A recent report by the European Commission further warned that almost half the population of Europe still lacks basic digital skills.

In order to protect human rights, we must first understand what we mean by them. In todays world, this means that we need to understand digital technologies. Our project is focussed on educating journalists, but we believe that through them we can educate society as a whole. We believe that by raising awareness of the need to protect human rights and freedoms in the digital era, our project will impact not only the spheres of media and society, but also the economy and competitiveness of the Czech Republic. A digital transformation which is not truly centred on the individual person and is not perceived as such by society at large has no chance of success in the long run”, explains Jan Vobořil of IuRe.