Cyberspace and critical technologies provide new ways to protect and exercise human rights and freedoms. Yet like all technological advances, access to cyberspace and critical technologies can bring benefits or pose risks to the protection of human rights.
Australia has a long-standing commitment to uphold and promote human rights. This is an underlying principle of our international engagement. Australia is committed to upholding and defending the international rules-based order online, including international human rights law, just as we do offline.
Access to cyberspace and critical technologies provides new and increased opportunities for the exercise of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the promotion and protection of other human rights. Cyberspace and critical technologies enhance participation in democratic processes and provide a unique platform to raise awareness of human rights issues, enabling human rights defenders to better engage with vulnerable communities, as well as amplifying their voice to carry out their work.
Cyberspace and critical technologies create opportunities and risks for human rights
When appropriately designed, technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems can reduce discrimination through the removal of unconscious bias in decision-making; and help realise the right to equality before the law and access to justice. They can also help realise the right to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health by improving diagnostics, personalising medical treatment and preventing disease.
Cyberspace and critical technologies can support decision-making in the use of force in domestic law enforcement and in a military context. Such technologies have the potential to support greater compliance with relevant international legal frameworks, as discussed in Annex B.
While cyberspace and critical technologies offer unparalleled opportunities to exercise, promote and protect human rights and freedoms, they can also be used to violate or undermine these rights. Decision-making bias can be built into AI algorithms and data sets, embedding discrimination or decreasing consideration of diversity on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, geography, Indigeneity or disability. It requires the active participation of all stakeholders – states, industry, civil society, and the research community – to prevent this.
The use of cyberspace and critical technologies inconsistent with international human rights law is of great concern to Australia. Many countries around the world increasingly use cyberspace and critical technologies to violate individuals' human rights and freedoms and prevent participation in democratic processes. This has included targeted hacking, mass online surveillance, the collection of personal and biometric information, the arrest and intimidation of online activists, the identification, profiling and restriction of members of particular cultural, religious or political groups, or through the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technology to monitor the everyday activities of individuals in a manner inconsistent with international human rights law.
Some countries are increasingly using cyberspace and critical technologies to pursue arbitrary or unlawful politically motivated content censorship, including through the deliberate use of Internet 'shut downs'. This is often done under the pretext of national security. The international community, including Australia, recognises the legitimate security needs and concerns of states and that limitations on some human rights and freedoms are permitted under particular circumstances. However, all countries have a duty to ensure these limitations are consistent with their obligations under international human rights law.
Supporting human rights is an underlying principle of Australia's foreign policy and international engagement. Australia is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, and supports capacity building in ASEAN and the Pacific through Australia's Cyber and Critical Technology Cooperation Program to strengthen human rights and promote democratic principles online.
Promoting, protecting and upholding human rights
Australia considers that individuals should enjoy human rights and freedoms online just as they do offline, including the design, development and use of critical technologies. We will advocate for the use of cyber and critical technologies to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms through continued engagement in multilateral and regional forums, and will raise human rights concerns and highlight opportunities in our bilateral engagement.
Oppose and condemn violations of human rights and freedoms
Australia condemns all attempts to violate human rights or freedoms using cyberspace or critical technology-enabled means. The use of Internet shutdowns to limit freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and involvement in democratic processes is of particular concern. Australia may publicly call out states, including through the Human Rights Council's Periodic Review Process, that deliberately or systematically use Internet shutdowns to stifle legitimate and peaceful opposition, and prevent people from voting or participating in democratic processes. For example, through the UN Human Rights Council, Australia has urged Myanmar to lift media and Internet restrictions in the Rakhine and Chin states.
Strengthening the capacity of states and other stakeholders
Australia will support capacity building in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen regional capacity to uphold and protect human rights online and through the design, development and use of critical technologies. A key focus of Australia's Cyber and Critical Technology Cooperation Program is to strengthen stakeholders' understanding of how to protect human rights online. Through the program, we support activities across the region that increase partner capacity to respond to and manage issues in a manner consistent with human rights online and through the design, development and use of critical technology.
This includes ongoing engagement with, and support of, non-government organisations (NGOs), civil society and industry groups. We will increase awareness and capacity for industry to meet its responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN General Assembly Third Committee resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.