Reflections on the Digital Rights Workshop

‘Do we have rights with respect to digital space? If yes, what are they?’ - this question set the tone for our workshop on ‘What are People’s Rights in the Digital World? - Moving Towards a Digital Contract’. In addition to digital rights activists, participants in this workshop comprised a broad spectrum of social sectors such as women’s rights, water rights, governance, intellectual property law, community development and rural livelihoods. The purpose of bringing together individuals from such diverse fields was to draw the first outlines of a social contract linking human rights frameworks to the digital realm.

Recognised thought-leaders such as Babu Mathew, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Kshitij Urs and Bishnu Mohapatra, shared their experiences regarding the evolution of the human rights discourse in their respective sectors. The conversation revolved around issues such as the importance of “micro-level revolutions” to bring about change, the risk of excluding certain communities during the current shift towards a digital space, the disconnect between having rights and exercising rights, and the social change required “to make rights real”. A recurring concern was that it is necessary to observe technology through a political as well as technical lens.

The idea of the digital becoming a pervasive part of our daily existence was explored by experts like Shemeer Babu, Anita Gurumurthy, Nisha Thompson, Siddharthya Roy and Dhruv Arora. The need for promoting digital technology as an empowering resource among different communities was emphasised. Adopting a bottoms-up approach where innovation is driven by the requirements of the community was put forward as a possible solution for future advances in the digital world. In the ‘digital society’ paradigm, the emergence of a new class of intermediaries – big platforms that seek to dominate global markets – was also discussed as a major concern. One of the cornerstones of the digital world is the idea of efficiency, but people’s rights may be getting compromised as we pursue it. The question emerged: “what brains are we connecting to as we become more digital, and who has access to them?”

Key highlights of the open discussion that followed the panel sessions, included pressing issues such as how digital governance affects the lives of the excluded poor, what kind of connectivity might ensure that people are rightful participants in the digital world and the need for data security legislation to protect against extreme centralisation. Succeeding group work sessions provided the impetus for participants to tackle concerns in the areas of access and connectivity, data and privacy, freedom of expression and association, Internet platforms and software-isation.

Conversations in the concluding session revolved around future directions from insights gleaned during the workshop. The general consensus was that the workshop provided “tremendous scope for deepening democracy”. A starting point is to create legal principles for digital constitutionalism in partnership with academic institutions. An organised social movement is necessary to catalyse change in the field of technology rights. IT for Change is committed to creating a charter of people’s digital rights based on inputs from this workshop. Participants were also enthusiastic about taking part in an Internet Social Forum in India next year, to be organised by IT for Change in partnership with others.