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Suspect to begin with? How do we protect our human rights in the digital age?

26 July 2021

Rule of Law Backsliding, Human Rights and the Digital Domain in the Netherlands

Note: The event was hosted in Dutch and all quotations are translations. Click above to (re)watch the event.

The trend of Rule of Law backsliding and increased digitalisation of society has not gone unnoticed in the Netherlands. – Merel Koning, Senior advisor technology and human rights, Amnesty International

The Netherlands is often viewed as an advocate and defender of human rights and rule of law in Europe. However, there is a noticeable, growing resistance towards international treaties on human rights, as well as instances of rule of law backsliding, demonstrated also in the recent Dutch childcare benefits scandal. A resistance that we recognise from many countries where the NHC operates, such as Hungary, Poland and Russia. What has become clear is that we can no longer take our human rights for granted and that action and awareness is needed. However, alongside this rule of law backsliding, we are witnessing a simultaneous attack on our rights as we enter the digital age. Whilst increased digitalisation can provide more equal opportunities, easier mobilisation for groups and increased transparency, we are also becoming increasingly aware of its setbacks and dangers.

Bring Human Rights Home: A Story from the Netherlands

As part of our collaborative #BringHumanRightsHome campaign, the NHC hosted an event on the 22 June 2021 highlighting our Dutch campaign video about the Syri case in the Netherlands, and how we can defend our human rights in the digital age.

The event was moderated by Marco Lambooij, Programme officer at the NHC. Diving into the conversation on safeguarding our rights in the digital era was Marleen Stikker, Founder and Director of Waag. The panel was joined by Jelle Klaas, litigation director and lawyer at NJCM/PILP; Kees Verhoeven former Dutch parliamentarian for the D66 party and founder of Bureau Digitale Zaken, and Merel Koning, Senior advisor technology and human rights at Amnesty International.

The Syri case exemplifies the aforementioned conflict; where the Dutch government developed the Syri system with the intent of combating fraud by analysing people’s data. It was used specifically on low-income communities in Rotterdam and resulted in the community launching a court case against the Dutch government. To hear the personal story of some of the people affected by this problematic algorithmic system, and of those who helped them stand up for their rights watch the full video here.

The conversation is too superficial at the moment – Marleen Stikker, Founder and Director of Waag.

In her keynote speech Stikker reminded us of our own role in safeguarding our rights in the digital era. Whilst  noting “on some level people are being more ‘woke,’ or awake in some form or another,” Stikker still felt nothing substantial is being done. From calling out to Alexa, hanging cameras on our front doors, to giving away our bio-data, increased awareness is needed to understand the extent of technology’s influence on our lives. Stikker went on to say that there is too much naivety surrounding the concept of data. “We must leave the idea behind that technology is neutral,” explaining that technology is not only data: “you have to know the extent of its effect on the world.”

Jelle Klaas kicked off the panel discussion by delving into the reasons NJCM/PILP decided to take on the Syri case as an example of strategic litigation:

There were several privacy laws and data protection issues at play. But perhaps even more importantly, we wanted to highlight what the system said about the relationship between the state and its citizens, and the matter of trust […] We wanted to not only win and destroy the system but to highlight this issue and make people aware: is it really ok our data is being used in this way? – Jelle Klaas, Litigation director and lawyer, NJCM/PILP

Following on, Merel Koning highlighted that there is indeed often an automatic trust surrounding data, as in the case of Syri for example. However, technology reflects society as our own biases are imprinted onto the data. Development processes therefore have to be inclusive, and a critical awareness is paramount.

Cultural change is needed. – Kees Verhoeven, former parliamentarian D66, Bureau Digitale Zaken

Verhoeven was still cautiously optimistic reflecting on the situation, stating that whilst a culture of saying yes to all technological developments still existed, people were increasingly learning to say ‘no’. Small acts of defiance have been occurring over the past years, such as the #deleteFacebook campaign started by the Dutch television programme Zondag met Lubach. Still, Facebook and Gmail continue to be used en masse, to which Verhoeven reiterated that increased awareness and questioning our our internet use is needed: “why am I actually using Gmail?”

Continuing to question  the use of technology as a blanket solution for all issues was again highlighted by Koning in the lively Q&A of the event. In response to the question: “With separate data sources, there is the possibility for situations to fall through the cracks, for instance, acts of domestic violence or abuse. How can you collate data in a safe and positive way?”,  Koning responded that the solution lies not with placing a whole neighbourhood under surveillance to pick up instances of abuse. Indeed, “this situation cannot be resolved through the use of data”. With regard to “domestic violence the indicators are extremely subtle, close contact, and community-based initiatives are therefore much more powerful. Through providing the appropriate services you do not need a monitoring system.”

What is needed to #bringhumanrightshome in the digital domain ?

Critical awareness stood central in the actions that we can undertake as individuals going forward. Actions that society can take on a political, institutional, but also individual level, were further outlined in our panel discussion. With an eye towards the future, Koning offered some advice and areas to focus on, going forward:

  • Compulsory human rights test for technological development, where a critical eye is needed on what kind of affect these developments have on human rights.
  • Transparency, looking at the Dutch childcare benefits scandal, where it took the affected group months on end to get an answer in the case. In the end it came to light that an algorithm was behind the crisis.
  • Increased monitoring is needed.

To (re)watch the event click here (in Dutch), with thanks to The Hague Humanity Hub for the venue and Holland Media Park for the technological help and recording.

Watch the other stories from the campaign here.

About the #BringHumanRightsHome campaign

Through the #BringHumanRightsHome campaign, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, in partnership with human rights organisations from across Europe, is sharing the personal stories of courageous people from eight different countries whose rights were severely violated. Hailing from Azerbaijan, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, they overcame opposition in court, personal threats, and financial hardship; stood up to actors much more powerful than themselves – yet never gave up. With the support of friends, family, and communities, they reclaimed their rights – for themselves, and ultimately, for us all. Find out more.

About the Human Rights Defence Programme

We believe safeguarding human rights is the responsibility of all people because everyone benefits from having these rights. Those with the knowledge and courage to defend our rights should be encouraged to do so and supported in their endeavours. They should not be persecuted, tried, nor convicted for championing our fundamental freedoms. The Human Rights Defence Programme works towards broadly spreading the message that human rights are important for everyone in society. This is done in order to increase the public’s support for human rights—and for those that defend them—so their work towards positive changes in society can continue and everyone can live in a more peaceful and just world. Find out more.