AlSur's contribution to the Global Digital Compact

The AlSur consortium, composed of 11 Latin American civil society and academic organizations that seek to strengthen human rights in the digital environment in the region, submitted its contribution to the Global Digital Compact (GDC) in April. The full document can be found here.

The Global Digital Compact (GDC) is an open consultation led by the Tech Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General. The GDC seeks to outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all, and it is hoped that it can become a common agenda on several critical issues for the internet, including: enforcement of human rights online, introduction of accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content, connectivity, how to avoid internet fragmentation, data protection and regulation of Artificial Intelligence.

The organizations that are part of AlSur are aware that the problems related to digital technologies have differentiated impacts on the societies of the global South. These problems and impacts must be considered in the formulation of any agenda or common guidelines, such as the GDC. In this sense, this document represents a key opportunity to promote perspectives that take into account the inequalities and challenges differentiated at the international level and promote actions that take into account the most vulnerable populations. If these views are not taken into account in decision-making related to digital and internet governance, technological advances could deepen inequalities instead of promoting change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

AlSur's proposals include contributions on almost all of the agenda items proposed by the GDC. These were drafted after a series of collective meetings and joint actions based on the experience of the 11 AlSur members in the 8 countries where we work, and summarize in turn, six years of trajectory and joint reflection on the challenges, realities, lessons learned and proposals systematized in more than 20 collective publications available in English, Portuguese and Spanish.

  1. Enforcing human rights online

At a time of accelerated growth of internet connectivity and increasingly intensive use of digital technologies, the enforcement and protection of human rights in digital environments is one of the greatest challenges for national, regional and global agendas. In our contribution, we focus on two issues in particular, freedom of expression and privacy, both of which are enablers for the exercise of other rights.

1a. Freedom of expression

In Latin America, freedom of expression online continues to be restricted in both direct and indirect ways. On the one hand, with rules and practices that impose censorship on legitimate content or with Internet interruptions, for example. On the other, with the spread of online violence, hatred and the use of surveillance technologies against journalists and human rights defenders. We emphasize online gender-based violence, which silences women's voices and discourages their participation in public debates.  

Some recommendations are:

  • Establish concrete measures and oversight mechanisms to eradicate all forms of violence.
  • Limitations to freedom of expression online should follow the same rules as offline limitations and therefore be established by law and meet the necessary conditions for enforcement.
  • Online platform providers should include mechanisms to take cultural and contextual diversity into account in their content moderation policies and practices.
  • High-level standards and monitoring mechanisms should be established to ensure net neutrality and respect for the free flow of information.
  • Total or partial disruptions of the Internet pose serious challenges to the exercise of a wide range of rights and should be avoided.
  • Anonymous and pseudonymous speech must be protected.

1b. Surveillance

Surveillance has a disproportionate impact on the exercise of human rights. Despite this, the acquisition and use of legal surveillance mechanisms by States and companies has increased in recent years, often without the necessary safeguards.  This increase is also reflected in the use of these technologies in public policy to address a wide range of societal challenges, such as public safety, border control, surveillance of social protests, access to public services and, recently, as a way to combat pandemics.

Therefore, there is a pressing need to develop standards governing the acquisition, development and application of technologies with surveillance capabilities, with a focus on prevention, especially considering that the assessment of rights violations always takes place after they have occurred.

Some recommendations are:

  • Monitor States' compliance with their international human rights commitments.
  • Guide and monitor the adoption of human rights-based normative frameworks to limit the State's use of surveillance technologies for peaceful purposes.
  • Support the strengthening of judicial and oversight institutions and mechanisms.
  • Transparency should guide any State action in relation to its overall surveillance capabilities. Also, mandate the adoption of human rights due diligence measures in the acquisition of surveillance technologies.
  • Ensure that mechanisms and standards are in place to ensure that the surveillance technology industry complies with its duty to protect human rights.

    2. Connecting all the people and schools

The challenge of connectivity in Latin America remains an undeniable reality.  The link between poverty and inequality has its share in this problem, but there are other disparities that we must recognize: among them, that the digital divide also affects female populations and geographically or socially isolated groups to a greater extent. To address these challenges and ensure universal access to telecommunications services, States must combine different regulatory initiatives that guarantee the principles of availability, affordability and accessibility.

Some recommendations are:

  • The CDG should recognize that providing connectivity for all is part of States' obligations.
  • Policies to promote connectivity for all should combine market-based solutions with community-oriented solutions.
  • Universal Service Funds should be activated to achieve Internet access for all, including schools, with priority given to remote or marginalized areas.
  • Recognize net neutrality as key to achieving connectivity for all.
  • Encourage States to develop digital literacy policies that take into account urban-rural disparities and adopt a gender perspective.
  • Include specific measures to enable persons with disabilities (PWD) to take full advantage of the Internet.

    3. Data protection

The regulatory and data protection frameworks applied by States have lagged behind the accelerated pace of adoption and development of digital technologies. Moreover, regulation constantly comes into tension with the implementation of surveillance technologies, which takes place in an unequal power relationship between data owners vis-à-vis states and companies. At the same time, the debate on international instruments to fight cybercrime is also currently a reason for setbacks in data protection, without a clear reflection on the problems that transborder data flows without proper safeguards may imply in the future.

Some recommendations are:

  • The adoption of sound legislation on personal data protection and access to information should be encouraged, as well as rules to balance the fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information.
  • The idea of "informed consent" needs to be rethought, combined with other data protection principles, in view of the emergence of new technologies.
  • Public and private data controllers must comply with obligations of fairness, diligence and confidentiality.
  • States must have independent data protection authorities with the appropriate capacity to inspect, supervise and sanction infringements committed by both private and public entities.
  • Lawful surveillance of communications should be carried out only when necessary and proportionate.
  • States should adopt legislative, administrative and other measures with high standards for the protection of personal data and human rights in general; in particular, in relation to cross-border criminal investigations.

    4. Promoting regulation of Artificial Intelligence.

The characteristics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) such as its high complexity, autonomous behavior, the need for large amounts of data to operate and opacity can negatively affect several fundamental rights. In Latin America, there is an alarming trend of increasing use of AI systems without proper safeguards and in sensitive areas of public policy such as the provision of state services. Although our analysis shows that data privacy laws are often the main source of control to prevent abuses, in most countries they are not yet mature enough to apply to these new technologies and sometimes fall short in providing specific protections.

Some recommendations are:

  • Reinforce the obligation of all stakeholders to respect human rights in the development and deployment of AI systems, expressly emphasizing that the promotion of and diversity should be addressed throughout the entire lifecycle of AI systems.
  • Encourage effective multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary participation in decision-making, as well as the production of human rights impact assessments, through specific recommendations, as well as considerations regarding the need for affirmative action to ensure the inclusion of historically marginalized groups.
  • Encourage and guide the establishment of follow-up and monitoring mechanisms.
  • Develop standards for periodic evaluation, monitoring and accountability mechanisms throughout the AI life cycle.
  • Establish clear obligations for publication of reports and evaluation mechanisms implemented by suppliers.
  • Encourage collaboration between more advanced economies and those in regions such as Latin America to foster capacity building, knowledge transfer, empower local industry and focus growth on equal opportunities.