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In the past 20 years, digital technologies have become widely used in data processing and transmission. This phenomenon, often labelled as „digital revolution“, has brought about great improvements in efficiency in the daily lives of many and for society as a whole.
The fight for a better protection of human rights has also benefitted vastly from these developments: It is hard to imagine that the „Arab Spring“ movement could have gained the same momentum without the widespread use of modern information and communications media. Classified documents (the leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden only being the most spectactular ones) bearing witness, for the first time, to human rights violations of a number of states, wouldn't have seen the same spread and publicity without anonymous online whistleblower platforms like WikiLeaks. Today, numerous projects interconnect human rights defenders all around the world through blogs, social networks, short messaging services and smartphone apps. As networks and bandwidths evolve, these technologies more and more enable activists in all parts of the world to compare notes on a global basis, exchange information and experiences, upload evidence of human rights violations and protect themselves more effectively.
On the other hand, governments also use these technologies to spy on, track down and detain people that they believe could jeopardise their power. In many cases, these measures affect people who have merely exercised their human rights. States use their capabilities to oppress actions or opinions they do not deem suitable. They covertly eavesdrop on electronic communications on a large scale, thus undermining the anonymity of communication and the privacy of people. They block content or services on the Internet, break into private email accounts, censor opinions through gigantic word filters, or even shut down communications networks in times of civil unrest and political protests.
The revelations of the last months concerning the NSA's and GCHQ's surveillance activities by far exceed the dimensions of global communications interception known to the public so far. At the same time, whistleblowers disclosing classified information about human rights violations face severe persecution by State authorities. The EU Directive on blanket telecommunications data retention and dubious EU research projects like INDECT add to the evolving picture that it is not just states with a well-known record of extensive communications interception, filtering and censoring like China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, that seem to attach little value to human rights in digital networks.
These are but a few examples of the ambivalent impact of digitisation on human rights. While modern information and communications technologies have yielded new opportunities for individuals to exercise their rights, they have also given rise to new ways for governments to prevent, obstruct or control these activities effectively. Current developments show that the excessive use of government power in this environment imperils the full enjoyment of human rights, in particular the right to privacy and the freedom of expression and information. In fact, governments all over the world these days seem to engage in what could be described as a repressive backlash against the facilitations that modern information and communications technologies have brought about for the exercise of human rights.
Amnesty International's German section is currently setting up a new task force (preliminarily known as Digital@Amnesty) that focuses on human rights violations in the context of the use of digital information and communications technology. Our mission is to keep a critical eye on the further development of these technologies and to assist in finding a position on the issues arising thereof with a view to the future protection of human rights in a digital environment.
This talk will present some aspects of our work, the position Amnesty takes on recent incidents in this field (including a legal assessment from a human rights perspective), and ways to get involved.