Q&A  | 

Honor and dignity in a digital society, by Wolfgang Kleinwächter, co author of the Charter of Fundamental Digital Rights of the EU

"We need to face the fact that new technologies have a disruptive potential."


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Wolfgang Kleinwächter is a preeminent global figure in Internet policy and Internet Governance: in the 1980s he co-created the UNESCO New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). During the 90s he initiated a number of Internet Governance projects which became building blocks in the Internet Governance Ecosystem, such as EURODIG, GIGANET or the IGF Dynamic Coalition on the Internet of Things and others.

In the 2010s he took on various leading positions for international bodies -Commissioner for the Global Commision on Stability in Cyberspace and Chair of the Cross Border Internet Expert Group of the Council of Europe among others- and more recently, he authored the Charter of Fundamental Digital Rights of the European Union.

Chapter 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union that you co-authored is Dignity - closely related to the rights to Honour, Reputation and Image. The latter is one of the most violated rights across the internet. Why does the Charter matter?

Information and communication are fundamental for human interaction and living together on our planet. They are part of human nature, part of the fundamental freedoms of an individual. However, there is no freedom without responsibility. Freedom of an individual ends where the freedom of another person is affected. 

The right to freedom of expression, as recognized as a “universal” human right in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (194) is linked to duties and can be limited to protecting other rights and freedoms as reputation or dignity of other persons. 

However such limitations need a legal basis and in case of unclarity have to be checked by a neutral third party, that is an independent court.

Is this digital phenomenon putting our social rules to the test or is it the other way around, a reflection of changes in society?

The information society is putting a lot of norms, principles and regulation from the industrial society to a test. Changes in the economic foundation of society trigger changes in the political superstructure with consequences for institutional mechanisms and regulations. 

In my eyes, such a development towards an “information society” […] is a move from the “lower level” to the “higher level”. As we know from various theories of dialectical materialism, at “the higher level” you will find the same problems you had on the lower level, but in a more complex environment. 

There is no need to “reinvent the wheel”, but the wheel in an information society is different and much more complex and advanced than the “industrial wheels”. Universal values, such as the right to freedom of expression or other fundamental rights and freedoms, will remain universal values.

The opportunities for the exercise of those rights and freedoms are growing in the information society, which has removed the century old barriers of time and space for the distribution of and access to information and communication. 

However, the threats of undermining or attacking those freedoms (borderless disinformation, censorship, manipulation etc.) are growing. 

Therefore, do you think the digital world could potentially disrupt the sense of community and society we have held so far?

We need to face the challenge that new technologies have a disruptive potential. Schumpeter coined the term “constructive destruction“. Self-cannibalisation is another word which is used in the digital economy to describe the life-cycle of new products and services. 

There are “the winner takes it all“ mechanisms in this digital economy market which destroys established local markets and businesses. In other words, if established mechanisms, procedures or “communities“ disappear, one should not be surprised. 

However, this is only half of the story. The most interesting one is the “rebuilding“ (on a higher level/See 3) of such mechanisms, procedures, communities and markets. The way forward is via innovation. 

One of the key slogans for the information society is “innovation without permission”. This is basically correct, but does not include the absence of any kind of limitations or regulations. There are “flip sides”, unintended side effects and counterproductive developments. Insofar as “innovation without permission” needs a general policy and regulatory framework to keep the balance within the society and to bridge counterproductive gaps. 

Lacordaire´s quote from the 18th century “between the strong and the weak it is freedom which oppresses and law which sets free” is also valid in the information age. This will become a key feature in the discussions around AI which has already started in organisations like OECD, UNESCO, Council of Europe or the GGE LAWS.


How can we protect people’s dignity and rights to honour, reputation and image across the internet and in the digital realm?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The legal instruments we have developed (after 300 years of struggle since the invention of the printing press, since John Milton Areopagitica and the democratric revolutions in the 18th and 19th century) after World War II are very practical and can be used against a misuse of freedom and rights in the information age. 

The whole body of international human rights is available with political declarations and legally binding conventions. There is no need for “new human rights”. 

However, there is a need for an enhanced interpretation of the existing rights and freedoms in a digital world. And there is a need for some adjustments, as we have seen around issues such as mass surveillance, fake news, hate speech, misuse of personal data and, in particular, around AI. 

The work of the two special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and privacy in the digital age under the UN Human Rights Council is the right way to go. It needs more political will to discuss and accept the recommendations of those special rapporteurs by the UNGA and its member states.

In light of the non-existent content liability of social media, is it really possible to protect people’s right to honour, reputation and image?

Here we have a fine red line. The challenge is to minimize the negative implications of the present system for content liability and to maximize the positive aspects. 

Overregulation can be easily turned into rigid censorship mechanisms where the “censors” (for political or economic reasons) are out of control of any system of accountability with democratic checks and balances. However, social damages as a result of non-existent or weak regulation can have a similar effect and are also unacceptable. 

It needs very sophisticated mechanisms which respect freedom but do not undermine human values.

One way forward could be to strengthen an independent “digital judiciary”, a third party which could handle individual cases and develop something that we know from the industrial world: Case Law. Probably ICANN´s UDRP could be a “source of inspiration”.


Does social media thrive in an atmosphere of indignity and individualism?

Yes and no. In the first place, individualism is fed by being alone with me, my computer and the rest of the world. 

But human beings are social animals. Sooner or later they will miss “socializing” and the pendulum will swing back and we will see more “digital communities”, “digital parties”, “digital communities” and “digital collectivism” (which will produce another risk and threat).