Digital Human Rights Build a More Durable Democracy
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 BusinessesExpand All
1. Offer Universal Protections for an Individual’s Digital Rights
Extend the protections afforded by the GDPR and California Consumer Privacy Act, arguably the two most comprehensive data protection and privacy frameworks, to all digital site users regardless of where they reside. Most businesses already comply with each regulation for European Union and California residents; the cost of applying principles of individual consent, choice, and control to all site users regardless of where they reside is low. The reward is high—a visible, shared, and uniform commitment by businesses and key players in free societies to protect digital human rights.
2. Publish Concise Privacy Disclaimers and Statements
Privacy statements and related disclaimers commonly involve a byzantine series of documents and provisions that bury fundamental privacy rights. Individuals are less likely to read and remember provisions outlining fundamental digital rights in such instances. Businesses need to draft privacy disclaimers and statements that are brief and concise so that individuals are more willing to read them and are better able to remember them. A consumer who can recall fundamental privacy rights is better able to exercise them.
3. Display Privacy Disclaimers More Prominently
Saliency, or what is most noticeable and significant, is essential in ensuring that business makes a meaningful commitment to digital human rights. As such, businesses need to prominently display privacy statements and respective notices instead of continuing the current practice of burying hyperlinks in difficult-to-access places. When privacy statements are seen, user awareness of data rights increases, building trust and extending key statutory rights directly to the individual. Images and infographics, rarely used in a privacy compliance context, can make a user’s privacy rights salient.
4. Make It Easy for Individuals to Control Individual Data Rights
Online procedures that individuals can use to exercise control over their data—for example, requests to delete data, remove it from marketing lists, and request that it not be shared—are cumbersome, time-consuming, and complicated, often requiring many unnecessary steps. Business needs to make it easy for individuals to exercise control over their data and digital identity. Complicated opt-out processes need to be replaced by simple one-click procedures so that opting out is as seamless as opting in. These simple processes and procedures, supported by trained customer service professionals helping customers understand and exert control over their digital rights, build the trust necessary to elevate business as a positive actor in a free society.
5. Allow Universal Access to Impartial Information
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.
About the Author
Lawyer and digital innovator, Matt Clayson is Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel at Detroit Trading Company, where he leads digital compliance, operations, and strategic planning teams. Previously, he was the inaugural Executive Director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, where he established one of the nation’s first design accelerators, led a multi-million dollar strategy to increase the economic output of Detroit’s creative industries tenfold, and had Detroit designated as the first UNESCO City of Design in the United States. He simultaneously served as an Executive Consultant to Shinola, leading its Detroit-based activities to establish and grow operations in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Clayson is a frequent speaker on topics of compliance, innovation, and entrepreneurship for The Aspen Institute, The Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Michigan State University, the BMW Foundation, and the Robert Bosch Foundation.