March 19, 2015 | Jim Killock

Why are digital rights important?

What are digital rights? And why do they matter? Executive Director Jim Killock gives an overview of why these principles are key right now.


Digital rights are your human rights in the digital age. They are one of the most important aspects of your human rights today: privacy and free expression online are among the most contested. The digital rights movement exists because we need people to understand how technology is shaping our rights, for good and for ill, and who it is who is seeking to employ and capture technology for their benefit rather than yours.

Let’s take a few examples. Privacy is one of your most important rights. Yet most people tend to think of privacy as a question of private life, the choices you make about your person and the things that make you uncomfortable. In the digital world, privacy is a question of personal information, automated judgements and profiling. Many people want to know everything they can about you, because they can – or hope they can – make money out of this. GCHQ perhaps wants to know if you are a threat; and they help the NSA get to know you in case you are politically or economically interesting.

Privacy in a digital age is about political and economic assessment. Personal information is at the root of many power structures and our relationships with government and private companies.

While it is often of benefit for this information to be used, we should be making the choices over how it is used, except in very extreme circumstances.

To take another right, free expression in a digital age is of course benefiting from a huge surge of new ways to communicate. This is a revolution, the most positive side to the digital story. It is not, however, without its problems. UK laws still criminalise ‘grossly offensive’ speech, and at the same time there are victims of sustained campaigns of harassment on social media whose abuse can be dismissed by police as too difficult or costly to prioritise.

The result is that increasingly we expect companies to judge the boundaries of speech, including anonymous speech. This can be very problematic.

Governments too try to limit speech, and often want to do this with limited or no accountability. Extremist content in the UK is taken down by government making requests to companies to remove it under their terms and conditions. A court is never involved. Is this appropriate or accountable? Lists of blocked and removed material are not available, even under freedom of information.

ORG is often making simple arguments about transparency and accountability. As with copyright blocking, these are arguments we can and do win. Even in relation to surveillance, the Intelligence and Security Committee (a parlimentary body whose role is to provide over sight of intelligence activity) has shown that the battle for greater transparency and accountability is one we can win. We are taking action in the courts, which also show we can win the battle for limited and targeted surveillance.

The real battles however are political. That is why a movement is required.

Political change requires social change, which needs education, discussion and arguments to be won.

That is why ORG needs you: both to help us make the case on your behalf, at the highest level to politicians and the media, and to empower you to explain what needs to be done to friends, family and to your elected politicians. Together we have a voice that matters, and that is why you should join today.

www.openrightsgroup.org/join