Preserving Human Rights Across the Digital Domain

42 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2022 Last revised: 4 Aug 2022

Date Written: August 1, 2022


Preserving Human Rights Across the Digital Domain

Digital human rights are under threat. The U.S. and China are vying for dominance across the digital domain. Each represents allies with shared fundamental values. Alternative governance models are being advanced, reflecting divergent understandings of “human rights”, one as universal and the other as situational. The language of the U.N.’s 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR) is being inverted. Tethering rights to the U.N.’s “Sustainable Development Goals 2030” (SDGs) grounds them concretely in common interests.

The “telecommunications” sector now embraces a wide range of digital technologies, applications, content and capacities (the “Digital Domain”). Control of this space implicates core values. The U.S. approach is based on “Western” values of democracy, free trade, open markets, equality, and rule of law. It favors individual rights. The China bloc takes a communitarian, command economy, hierarchical approach, valuing security and social harmony over individual liberty. Both are seeking Digital Domain dominance to gain control of growing flows of “data” to fuel innovation and growth.

The nexus is the U.N., the ITU, and affiliated bodies. UNSG Guterres is offering a new approach. His 2020 “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” and 2021 Report, “Our Common Agenda” aim to capture the benefits of stakeholder inputs while respecting the positions of Member-states. He has called for a “Summit of the Future” in 2023 to seek a “Global Digital Compact” proposing “a more inclusive and networked multilateralism” with “sovereignty reimagined”. At the same time, multiple stakeholder forums will be engaged.

The UDHR sets out 30 basic human rights. Its authors believed that human rights are “inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings”. However, their “universal” language is being qualified by the China bloc to reverse the notion that “human rights” are “universal” but instead are conditional and situational. Each nation should be free to define “human rights” as it sees fit. The SDGs embody objective targets for advancing the non-instrumental goal of human well-being, a proxy for human rights. They create opportunities for identification of common interests (e.g., health, climate, water, hunger, etc.) which can lead to collaborations and promote international flows of data.

The paper will: i) Describe and compare alternative Digital Domain governance strategies, balancing the flow of data with security and social stability; ii) Describe and compare Digital Domain proposals’ normative foundations with special attention to human rights; iii) Describe the role of the U.N., ITU and other entities in shaping a new approach to the sovereignty-stakeholder dynamic; iv) Introduce the role of the UDHR; v) Propose links between the UDHR and SDGs to strengthen human rights through shared interests.

This paper is an analysis, in the field of policy studies, of a contested information policy principle, digital human rights. It is qualitative not quantitative. It relies primarily on documentary sources such as books and periodicals, and online sources such as documents, government reports, general and specialized periodicals, academic literature, websites, blogs and data bases. The paper is intended to advance the global discourse promoting digital human rights.

Keywords: Human Rights, Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations, ITU, Internet Governance

Suggested Citation

Taylor, Richard D., Preserving Human Rights Across the Digital Domain (August 1, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Richard D. Taylor (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

Harrisburg, PA
United States

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