Human Rights in the Digital Society

Luciano Violante | President, Fondazione Leonardo

Human Rights in the Digital Society

Pope Francis has explained that we are not living in an epoch of change, rather we are witnessing an epoch-making change, mainly driven by digitalization.

Digital technology affects every aspect of human existence: our relationships, our education and our jobs. Modern technology is increasingly becoming the interface between the material and immaterial realms, between individuals and their community, between citizens and government. Unlike other great innovations, such as the steam engine or electricity, digital technology can shape human thinking, influence opinions and mimic human behaviour.

Like all great innovations, artificial intelligence entails opportunities as well as risks. We should therefore embrace digitalization so that it can be used by everyone under conditions of equality, subsidiarity and inclusion. Throughout history man has learnt to master fire, shape materials, sail the seas and fly the skies. Now we need to acquire digital skills through digital literacy so as to appreciate the strengths, the opportunities as well as the risks that this new technology entails.

For the sake of clarity I have divided my presentation into 7 arguments – I will briefly cover the main points which are set forth in greater detail in my written presentation.

Argument #1. Understanding the implications of the shift from the analogue to the digital society

There are several profound differences between a society based on analogue technology and one based on digital technology. In the analogue society the essence of the human condition is the human relationship with other people. By contrast, in a digital society, the essence of the human condition is the connection with an indefinite number of unknown individuals; in the digital society social media followers have taken the place of friends. In the analogue world reality is represented through an indefinite series of concepts, while in the digital world reality is represented through a finite series of numbers.

In the analogue society citizens need to know a lot about the establishment, and the establishment does not need to know much about its citizens. In the digital society, citizens know little about the establishment while the establishment knows a lot about its citizens. Amazon knows a lot about me, whereas all I know about Amazon is its website address.

The analogue society has intermediaries, political parties, unions and associations that act as such publicly; however, they do not control everything, they have clearly defined roles and their articles of associations are available for inspection. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the digital society is not without intermediaries; rather, it has new intermediaries: – the owners of the big platforms that control the market and whose articles of association are not open for inspection. The old intermediaries pursued good policies in exchange for electoral support; the new intermediaries provide us with services in exchange for our data. The analogue society considers the right to privacy a fundamental human right. In the digital society there is no privacy; everything is knowable, on display and known. Most Internet users are careless with their data; however, if their personal data were requested by the Government, they would take to the streets to protest against such requests. The analogue society is centred on narration, story-telling, the flow of events and history. The digital society reduces reality to a number; it lives in an eternal present devoid of history.

When a new age begins all power relations, all rights and all duties are called into question. The most powerful individuals tend to impose new hierarchies, while the least powerful people usually succumb. The digital society – therefore – could undermine human rights.

Hence, a reaffirmation of human rights is needed – it is needed first and foremost to protect the dignity of human beings. This is why we need to foster a new notion of digital literacy that teaches people to design and use digital technology.

Argument #2. The case against a Black Box Society

An open and advanced society needs to regulate the excessive power of Black Boxes. Through machine learning, data matching and automatic profiling, black boxes process large amounts of information, understand text, recognize images and connect the dots. Their learning modes are similar to those of the human brain, they require perfect artificial neural networks and sophisticated computational models.

Black boxes gather and interpret data using opaque algorithms – which – by scrutinizing user habits, can predict future behaviour, influence decisions and shape perceptions of reality. An algorithm designer conveys his beliefs in the algorithm he creates, and so his beliefs become reality. No algorithm is unbiased: the fact that the process involved is mechanical should not make us forget that it has been designed by a human being. The biases of the algorithm’s designer can creep into the algorithm and affect outcomes. Unbiased design of the algorithm must therefore be a key component of digital literacy.

In the digital society algorithmic decision-making needs to be fully transparent and individuals should have the right to challenge decisions made by an algorithm. In a democratic society, algorithms must be accessible when algorithmic decision-making has implications for fundamental rights. An unbiased approach is impossible and may not even be desirable; but algorithmic design must not be biased in ways that are unacceptable. We should therefore strive to turn black boxes into glass boxes.

Argument #3. The digital society raises the issues of democracy, news reporting and knowledge in new ways

The rapid growth of digitalization has not been matched by a corresponding growth in awareness of the changes it has brought about. The issue of regulation arises in connection with all forms of power. Digital power is no exception and so the question is how to regulate it, and make it human-centered, without overregulating it. Today a number of big private companies dominate a substantial part of the world-wide web wiping out competition and circumventing government control. Big tech companies now provide services that have become indispensable – this is why they have enormous influence on our lives and government policy. They are the market and the market players and administer their own justice. They shape public opinion through effective messages they send out in rapid succession, which makes it difficult to assess whether they are true or not. As a result, the most vulnerable people tend to confuse information thus obtained with knowledge.

Non-democratic countries may use Artificial Intelligence for biometric recognition to track and profile people. These practices are a violation of privacy and should be allowed only for the prevention of serious crimes. In spite of the risks it entails, digital technology can be a friend of democracy, a tool for disseminating information, spreading knowledge and facilitating dialogue. However, a failure to regulate the big tech industry would achieve exactly the opposite effect: democracy could give way to automated thinking – thinking would become become sterile. Automated thinking would take over, dehumanizing public discourse and leading to false political beliefs. This is why Art. 5 in the European Commission’s proposals for regulating Artificial Intelligence bans subliminal manipulation techniques.

Argument #4. The case for digital literacy

Formal rules are needed, yet rules alone are not enough; what we need is ‘good customs’. Good customs can be learnt. The laws that regulate the digital industry should be complemented by digital literacy so that we can learn to navigate the digital space responsibly. Education is more important than prohibition. Fraudulent use of the Internet may lead uninformed citizens to believe false opinions. A perception may gain currency whereby the Internet is the source of truth – hence “verum et digitale convertuntur” (Giambattista Vico, 1668-1774, maintained “verum et factum convertuntur”). Therefore, if a piece of news is in the digital environment it is certainly true, especially if it matches expectations. It is hardly surprising, as this was once true of newspapers as well as radio and television. Then education and experience helped us evaluate the different aspects and discern between them. Education and experience will help us acquire a critical understanding of the digital environment.

Only reliable truth may engender trust in human relations and lay the foundations for a new social contract. The best solution lies not in ex-post control; it lies in digital education and in designing systems – ex ante – in a way that prevents social platforms from becoming tools for disseminating fake news and inappropriate content. Digital education, however, entails two challenges.

The first challenge is the generation gap. While the digital world often remains inaccessible to older generations, digital technology is often misused by younger generations. Education, however, can help seniors learn basic digital skills and teach young people to use digital technology responsibly. The second challenge is the digital divide. Access to technology is an economic and geopolitical challenge. In some regions of the world the digital divide exacerbates inequalities within and between nations. Digital humanism requires that nobody be left behind.

Argument #5. “Digital companies” and digital space

Big digital companies exert their power in the new space they have created and to which they hold the access key. Cyberspace is global, it pervades all nations of the world, yet it eludes each one of them.

Digital companies hold de facto power that no one has ever had before: they influence a large portion of the lives of individuals and States and provide indispensable services which can affect the quality of private and public life. If these companies were to decide to pull the plug, the world would stand still. This is not the first time in human history that big private companies have acted in one realm as if they were a State: just think, for example, of the British East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur trading company established by King Charles II of England.

Both companies ruled over vast territories, had armed forces, levied taxes and administered justice. Just like the digital companies today, the only difference is that the latter can provide services to the entire world population. Our goal should therefore be to achieve global governance of the digital ecosystem.

In this connection, the recent manifestos signed by digital CEOs and other leaders in the digital economy, calling for human-centered technological development and global governance of the digital ecosystem, deserve more enthusiastic backing by the political ruling class.

Argument #6. Define the threshold of human agency that should not be relinquished”

In his diaries, Kierkegaard spoke of the “courage to say ‘I’, the courage to claim one’s own unclassifiable human dignity”. Digital tools, by contrast, measure and turn the social identity of each one of us, our most intimate thoughts, affectivity, beliefs and even our buying decisions – into profiles based on digits. But individuals are not the sum of their personal data. The courage Kierkegaard wrote about is the claim to an individual’s own specificity that cannot be relinquished. The uniqueness of individuals needs to be protected. This is not a question of narcissistic individualism. It is rather the issue of the primacy of human agency that should not be relinquished.

We should not have any doubt in marking the difference in value between a human being and an algorithm. Immersed in the digital swarm people risk being downgraded from “moral beings” to merely “physical beings”.

Digital technology may compel Homo sapiens to take an anthropological leap towards Homo connexus, who is always connected and studies, travels, works, and enjoys himself online. Paraphrasing Aristotle, man becomes a data-generating being, but can never be reduced solely to this.

The constant interaction with digital technologies may cause people to shut themselves off from the world and live in a secluded place – where they are relieved of the trouble of thinking and making decisions – a place that ends up resembling a 21st century Kolyma. From the Metal Ages – when homo sapiens first appeared on earth – we have now come to our time – the age of algorithms. Homo connexus may become a bar code that can be immediately recognized and traced back to one or more algorithms. A digital transformation not governed by human beings can empty human existence of meaning. Homo connexus must not renounce his being Sapiens and must claim his irreducibility to a mathematical model.


The term Digital Society refers to the sum of cultural and social aspects produced or influenced by Artificial Intelligence, but dominated and governed by human values. Hence, digital civilization is not synonymous with digital age or digital society. Age and society are purely descriptive terms, they merely describe a time and a place characterized by the massive presence of digital technology.

Digital civilization, and I emphasize the noun, refers to the human condition in the digital society, characterized by man’s mastery of technology. This mastery is based on five factors: transparent criteria in algorithmic design, digital education, the protection of the freedom to decide for oneself, a ban on mass surveillance technology, human supervision of sectors in which algorithms make decisions that have direct impact on people’s lives.

A permanent dialogue among humanists, technologists and businesses is needed because we are approaching technological discontinuity as autonomous machines perform tasks by themselves. At this stage interaction between technology and ethics becomes crucial. Achieving man’s mastery over technology is the goal we should pursue in the present time if we are to remain free in the future.