General Election 2015 Roundtable: Do We Need New Human Rights For The Digital Age?

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis

Politicians have utterly failed to address a number of pressing issues around the internet and are sorely lacking in digital literacy, a series of experts have told The Huffington Post UK, with one claiming a government minister in charge of data issues once mistakenly referred to "biscuits" instead of web cookies.

At a Huffington Post roundtable on The Digital Deficit, which examined the sheer lack of mention of internet issues like privacy, trolling and free expression in the General Election campaign, it was claimed human rights in Britain do not give enough protection to citizens of the internet age - but a 'digital bill of rights' is not necessarily the answer.

While questions were raised over the efficacy of a digital-age Magna Carta, as proposed by World Wide Web founder Tim Berners Lee, panel members, which included Open Rights Group chief executive Jim Killock, barrister Greg Callus and anti-trolling campaigner Nicola Brookes, said they had identified "emerging rights" which politicians had not addressed.

The panel, which also included Index on Censorship's Jodie Ginsberg and Dan Raisbeck from the anti-bullying charity Cybersmile, all said there were clear issues for politicians to address in the next parliament:

  • The need for 'safe spaces' for children to discuss online safety, privacy and bulling
  • Renewed impetus from the Department of Education to encourage schools to teach 'digital citizenship'
  • Sex education to include the risks of posting information on social media
  • Better training for police to deal with victims of online harassment, and to re-think advising victims to 'censor themselves' by closing down social media accounts
  • An radical re-think of the parliamentary oversight of GCHQ in order to properly assess issues of surveillance and privacy

But each member of the panel had concerns about the ability of politicians to adequately understand internet issues, and worried for future lawmaking. "There is a high level of digital illiteracy," Ginsberg said. "It was encapsulated for me when shortly after the 2010 election I went to see a government minister who was notionally in charge of data issues, who told me he had had a fascinating meetings about ‘biscuits’.

"What he meant was cookies, computer cookies.

"But the level of ignorance about the internet and its most basic forms and how it works I think is fairly pervasive."

Panelist also explored the right to be able use your own possessions as you see fit. "The law is telling us we can’t do things with things that we own, which are fundamental and big investments. That’s not a right that our current rights cover," Killock said.

"Even your coffee machine, with the little pods, if you use the wrong sort of pod you are breaking the law.

"Of course this starts giving you all kinds of problems if the tool in question is for example your car, or a pacemaker. A bloke in American had an insulin injector run by a small computer who was concerned about how it was working so he reverse-engineered it and found that it was entirely hackable, connected to the internet and could be switched on and off and if it was switch off by its battery, then it would deliver the default amount of insulin which would have killed him. And then he was told that action was unlawful because he’d reverse engineered it," Killock added.

The right to digital security is one that politicians have shied away from discussing. "You shouldn’t have the government telling you that certain security tools are banned. Privacy is a qualified right so the government could say that it is necessary [to ban encryption]. It’s a very new argument we haven’t explored," Killock said.

But Callus, a barrister at 5RB specialising in media, technology and information law said he was "radically against the idea of digital bill of rights".

"The idea of tying fundamental rights of human beings to the technology of a very slim period of their history I think is fundamentally wrong.

Callus said he would like to see digital campaigners focus on legal rights. "The real issue here is access to the courts and access to enforcement of rights. Unfortunately that means legal aid or some similar system that replaces it and access to judicial review. Both of these things have been seriously cut back by this government."

As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions

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