Digital Human Rights Build a More Durable Democracy

August 09, 2022
Matthew Clayson, MMF '16
7 min read
Photo credit: Den Rise /
Many responsible business leaders are increasingly asking what they can do to protect democratic societies against unprecedented threats from undemocratic actors.

While Russia’s war in Ukraine offered a moment for businesses to respond to these actors forcefully, the business sector must do more at home to strengthen democratic processes, systems, and society. A necessary area for increased cooperation is a shared commitment to protecting and advancing digital human rights.

The war in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for responsible business leaders to respond loudly and join the global counterstrike against Russian authoritarian aggression. From withdrawing operations and canceling lucrative business deals to promoting the flow of impartial, objective information and resourcing essential humanitarian aid, businesses have held unprecedented roles in supporting a collective, multi-sector response to authoritarianism and aggression. And this not only extends to large multinational corporations such as McDonald’s, BP, American Express, Deloitte, Bloomberg, and others, opening a metaphorical third front against Russian imperial aspirations and aggression. On a personal level, the need for action meant working with dozens of small business owners and their companies to coordinate shipments of necessary personal protection gear to civil defenders to uphold their resistance in Kharkiv, Donbas, Mykolaiv, and elsewhere. Our joint efforts were a modest contribution but added to the unified global resistance.

This uncoordinated but shared commitment among large, medium, and small enterprises in supporting the people of Ukraine can serve as a template for shared approaches to supporting democratic systems, processes, and societies elsewhere.

This uncoordinated but shared commitment among large, medium, and small enterprises in supporting the people of Ukraine can serve as a template for shared approaches to supporting democratic systems, processes, and societies elsewhere. In the remainder of this article, I will outline how a commitment to protecting digital human rights is an area in which businesses can take quick, meaningful, and organic action regardless of size, location, or corporate structure. This commitment starts with a shared understanding of digital human rights and why they matter. It continues with a coordinated approach to do more to advance digital human rights beyond mere regulatory compliance. Finally, I will explore five simple, low-cost, and high-impact steps to spark a broader conversation.    

A Shared Commitment: Digital Human Rights

Approximately 12.5 trillion hours are spent online, according to the Digital 2022 Global report published by We Are Social. As more of our lives transition to digital spheres, our traditional understanding of human rights is evolving. Digital rights are increasingly front and center of the policy debate, and policymakers in democratic systems are defining a new framework to promote and protect those rights, albeit more slowly than technology advances. As a result, the ability to promote and protect digital human rights is an increasingly important hallmark of a free, democratic society.  

The transatlantic legal framework has evolved to protect individuals’ digital identity. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced a consent-based framework for processing personal data, codifying various rights and protections over how such data can be stored and transacted. Similarly, the California Consumer Privacy Act provided its residents with explicit rights regarding their data. Simply put, an increasing number of jurisdictions are enacting laws and regulations that give individuals clear rights related to collecting and storing data. The legal framework encodes certain universal digital rights under a standard theory of individual consent, choice, and control.

Performative vs. Meaningful Compliance: What Business Can Do

Businesses have evolved to comply with these perfunctory obligations. Performative in nature, compliance for many involves layers of legalese in the form of a check-list of auditable actions, such as lengthy disclaimers, pop-up cookie disclaimers, opt-out processes, and detailed yet unclear privacy statements. The surface-level commitment to digital human rights fails to make a meaningful impact, leaving individuals skeptical, distrusting, cynical, and impressionable to the siren’s song of control as baited by authoritarian, strongman regimes. 

Fortunately, the power to move from performative to meaningful compliance rests within the business, and the resources required to make a move are minimal. Below are five simple steps businesses can take to spark and engage in meaningful compliance activities that promote and advance digital human rights.

Five Steps for Businesses

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It Is Up to Us to Create a More Durable Democracy

Democracy is not easy; it takes time, courage, commitment, and resources to preserve and maintain. In the face of unprecedented threats to democracy, responsible business leaders must make space to remind each other regularly that free enterprise thrives in free markets, and that democratic, capitalist systems are essential for free markets. Responsible business leaders must also permit each other to set aside the time to identify what business can do to and where business can invest to realize a more durable democracy that can withstand threats from anti-democratic actors. Moving from performative to meaningful compliance to strengthen protections for digital human rights is an area where responsible business leaders can make an immediate impact with minimal investment: putting into further practice business-led efforts designed to strengthen the democratic systems where free enterprise is able to flourish.