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We need safeguards to uphold digital rights and freedoms

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Person with cell phone. Image: Angelo Moleele/Unsplash

In the January 2019 issue of WACC's journal, Media Development, Clifford Christians, University of Illinois emeritus professor of communications, writes about "New digital technology and global communication ethics."

He calls for a commitment to the three ethical principles that underlie human solidarity: truth telling, human dignity, and non-violence, which "highlight the distinctive character of any society and are the basis for distinguishing the human community and virtual networks from each other."

Those who wish to read in-depth should obtain Christians' latest book: Media Ethics and Global Justice in the Digital Age.

In short, as with every new technological innovation, there are pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, benefits and risks.

People's increased interconnectedness offers opportunities to share information, experience, and knowledge, but it also creates new risks and ethical dilemmas. Advancements in digital technologies have led to many positive effects, but at the same time a kind of digital vulnerability has emerged which has been exploited by governments, corporate interests, xenophobic populist politicians and even by internet service providers.

Abuses include disrupting or shutting down systems, the misuse of information for surveillance, invasion of privacy, censoring speech, deleting or blocking data, and the forced distribution of politically motivated messages via network operators.

And, according to a recent study commissioned by the European Parliament, women are especially affected:

"Cyber violence and hate speech online against women occurs on a variety of platforms: social media, web content and discussion sites, search engines, messaging services, blogs, dating websites and apps, comment sections of media and newspapers, forums, chat rooms of online video games, etc. Research shows that women are specifically targeted by cyber violence and that age and gender are significant factors in the prevalence of cyber violence… Cyber violence infringes women's fundamental rights and freedoms, their dignity and equality and impacts their lives at all levels."

In Canada, 67 per cent of those who went to the police to report being a victim to cyber violence were women and girls, according to 2009 data from Statistics Canada.

The Canadian Women's Foundation (CWF) identified the following forms of online hate and cyber violence: harassment and spamming, cyberstalking, sexual exploitation or luring, non-consensual distribution of images, hacking, doxing, and flaming.

In recent years, there has been a spike in hate crimes in Canada, most of which are "linked to increasing expressions of hate in digital spaces, including those directed at women, and the 2SLGBTQ+ community, as well as highly targeted ethnic and religious groups," adds the CWF. It noted that a third of the victims of reported hate crimes between 2010-2017 were women.

So, the question is who is going to speak out and act to protect our collective digital rights and freedoms and to decrease our collective vulnerability to misinformation, manipulation and cyber violence? Without safeguards, the digital age risks becoming an ally of those who seek to disparage and demean human dignity and global justice.

As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012).

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance. 

Image: Angelo Moleele/Unsplash

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