Skip to main content

OECD Rights in the Digital Age (2022)

Digital transformation affects every aspect of people’s lives, individually and collectively and provides many opportunities. However, it can expose people to new risks, such as security threats, privacy breaches, and restrictions on freedom of expression. At the same time, broad and equitable access to the Internet and digital tools is essential for education, work and social engagement.  The study from OECD (December 2022), Rights in the Digital Age / Challenges and ways forward, explores the impact of digital transformation on internationally recognised human rights, legal and constitutional rights, and domestically protected interests. It considers specific case studies, and provides a brief overview of international and domestic initiatives to protect ‘rights in the digital age’.

As online and offline lives intertwine, concerns and policy gaps emerge regarding individuals’ needs and interests in the digital age. These can be framed from the perspective of rights, including:

  • Human rights, defined by their meaning as “universal and inalienable”, that all people have by virtue of existing as human beings
  • Legal/constitutional rights set out in a country’s domestic constitution and/or legal framework
  • Individual interests that are protected in a domestic context but might not be specified as a human or legal/constitutional right

These categories can overlap, such as where an internationally recognised human right is codified in a country’s constitution or legal framework (e.g. protection from discrimination).

The report examines the impact of digital transformation on human rights and is divided into five chapters:

Chapter 1 – Introduction: “Rights” in online and offline contexts. It sheds light on how rights in the digital age are exercised and protected, including how tensions between human rights (and the necessary balancing act of protecting them) can differ between online and offline contexts. Further, it provides examples of laws and policies that encompass this concept.

Observations include:

  • The digital environment poses unique risks and tensions regarding the protection of rights. Technological advances raise questions about privacy and other human rights.
  • Evidence suggests increasing understanding among countries that policymaking for the digital age requires careful examination of the impact of digitalisation on the enjoyment and protection of human rights and individual interests.
  • Many jurisdictions address questions of rights in the digital age through legislative and policy action. However, there are considerable variations among different approaches, with some initiatives reinforcing the principle that the same human rights that apply offline should be protected online; and others defining or elaborating specific domestic or regional guarantees, or specific frameworks, to protect individual interests and human rights in a digital context.

Chapter 2 – Opportunities and challenges for rights in the digital ageIt considers case studies of specific rights and how they manifest in the digital environment. As new technologies often outpace the policies that govern them, regulatory and policy gaps create the potential for these technologies to be used in ways that harm individuals or society as a whole and undermine the enjoyment of rights in the digital age. Three examples illustrate these challenges: a) freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information in the digital age, b) privacy and protection of personal data and c) connectivity and digital divides as an emerging right to access. In this respect the paper examines the emerging trend of considering Internet access as a right, and potential implications. Ιn this context beyond ensuring widespread connectivity and access to the digital environment, meaningful access requires that people have adequate digital literacy and skills to use digital technologies, and that they are empowered to realise its benefits and understand its risks. Addressing digital divides therefore goes beyond Internet connectivity, and improving indicators such as income, employment and education can have a direct impact on gaps in digital access.

Chapter 3 – Protections for rights in the digital age. While some national jurisdictions seek to address rights questions within existing normative frameworks, others consider that this calls for specific laws, policies, strategies, and even new rights designed for individuals’ activities in the digital environment. This paper highlights domestic (national), regional (EU level initiatives), and international initiatives (UN initiatives) and briefly sets out the current state of play regarding legal and policy measures to safeguard rights and address related challenges in the digital age. It also considers the role of business and their responsibility to respect and promote human rights.

Chapter 4 – Conclusion. The paper provides a point of departure for considering rights in the digital age. The rapid digital transformation provides opportunities and risks for the enjoyment of rights in the digital age. The challenge is to find an adequate approach that enables innovation and can ensure it is safe, accountable, human-centred, and rights-oriented. It also presents challenges to the fulfilment of governments’ obligations under binding international human rights frameworks, and in their domestic legal frameworks. The OECD’s report contributes to and facilitates dialogue between countries who share democratic values and are exploring ways to maintain and advance the enjoyment of human rights and individual interests in the digital age. It provides a launching point for dialogue and responds to the need for a further evidence-base.