Digital rights revisited: a rights-based approach to building digital public spaces

October 17, 2023

For the past decade, online ecosystems have been dominated by commercial platforms that monetize user engagement and interactions. True digital public spaces, where people can openly express themselves, exchange ideas, and engage in substantive discourse without being exploited and having value extracted from them, are rare. Against this backdrop, this paper examines digital rights as a framework that plays a role in shaping the dynamics of online ecosystems. It considers the feasibility of a holistic rights-based approach to creating genuine digital public spaces.

The paper looks into the concept of digital rights and its scope, pointing out that it is an amalgam of various rights frameworks with roots in human rights. It highlights a historical context where distinctions among different categories of human rights, stemming from the political and ideological divisions of the 1950s and 1960s, led to a prolonged period of overlooking social and economic rights by states, both in the digital and non-digital domains. The paper underscores the complex landscape of claiming digital rights, given the peculiar situation of privately owned platforms, such as social media platforms, frequently serving as de facto digital public spaces. Within these spaces, various rights frameworks operate concurrently due to the different functions and conceptualizations of the same digital environments. These spaces, which allow for community activism as well as social and political interaction, are dominated by market-driven principles and dynamics.

Drawing from this analysis, the paper explores the key limitations inherent in the prevailing conception of digital rights. These limitations encompass challenges with the enforcement of rights, a disregard for social justice issues, and neglect of materiality and the environmental impacts of technologies that underpin digital public spaces.

The paper argues that despite its limitations, a rights-based approach to building digital public spaces can shape these spaces in a way that combats exploitative business models and protects individual and collective well-being. However, for digital rights to fulfill that role, the scope of digital rights must first be reconsidered. This rethinking must result in a greater emphasis on historically marginalized rights, such as socio-economic rights and environmental protections.

The analysis conducted in this paper underscores the interdependence of rights and an enabling environment. The practical realization of rights is contingent on the existence of an environment conducive to their exercise.

This leads to the conclusion that addressing the challenges arising from the digital environment’s interrelated political, economic, and social dynamics necessitates a dual approach. While acknowledging the value of a rights-based approach, the paper argues that it alone cannot resolve complex digital challenges. It points to the fundamental misalignment between private economic interests on the one hand and conditions required for the full enjoyment of rights on the other as the potential root cause of the difficulty in enforcing digital rights.

Given that the digital platform landscape is characterized by exploitative business models, the paper argues that creating truly public digital spaces is just as important as platform regulation and defending rights within current online ecosystems


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Zuzanna Warso
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