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A deep transformation of the State is underway. Fueled by digital technologies that are changing its operation, nature and power, the Digital State is emerging. More than 75 years after “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” triggered the development of a system of international human rights norms and institutions to protect individuals against the overwhelming power of the State, this course considers the role that human rights law can play today to protect us from the threats posed by the Digital State. While the emphasis will be on the Digital State, this course will also explore how the Digital State relies on, and is sometimes in direct competition with, digital corporations which have sometimes outpaced and outmaneuvered it and, in the case of Big Tech, even appear to aspire to ‘digital statehood’. Throughout this course, we will study the response of international human rights mechanism, the human rights community and broader social justice movements to these developments and attempt to imagine not only how human rights can be protected in the digital era, but how the Digital State can play a pivotal role in enabling the realization of human rights in the 21st century.
Principal topics will include:
- The key characteristics of the Digital State, its appeal and how it differs from its predecessor.
- Digital State case studies from a diverse array of countries and political systems in areas such as criminal justice, immigration, identification and social protection and their specific, contextualized, human rights risks.
- The Digital State and recurrent human rights concerns, including: access barriers, lack of transparency, lack of reason-giving, discrimination, alienation and challenges related to redress and accountability.
- The role of the private sector in designing, enabling and profiting from the Digital State and the ascendancy of Big Tech and its challenge to the State, law and human rights.
- The response to the Digital State by UN human rights mechanisms and global human rights standard-setting relevant to the Digital State.
- Litigating the Digital State and non-judicial advocacy strategies by human rights and social justice organizations and movements.
- Fulfilling human rights in the 21st century: embracing the Digital Welfare State?
Intended learning outcomes
A student who has successfully completed this subject will:
- Have a sophisticated understanding of the digital transformation of the State and some of the main human rights challenges posed by the Digital State.
- Have a sophisticated understanding of the legal, political and practical challenges ensuring human rights accountability in the Digital State.
- Understand how the Digital State poses a particular danger to the human rights of those individuals living in poverty or who are otherwise marginalized in society.
- Understand the relationship between the Digital State and corporations and its implications for the application of human rights norms.
- Gain insight into the increasing power of Big Tech and its apparent appeal to a form of statehood and how this could undermine the protection of human rights.
- Be aware of the workings of key UN human rights mechanisms as they relate to the debate on digital technologies and human rights.
- Be able to think strategically about judicial and non-judicial avenues for the human rights movement to promote human rights accountability in the Digital State.
- Appreciate the potential ways in which the digital transformation of the State may allow us to better protect and fulfil human rights.
Last updated: 16 July 2021