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The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kristina Stenman's speech in an online seminar "Free, accessible and safe internet for all"

Many thanks to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Finnish Internet Forum for convening this meeting to launch Finland´s Presidency in the Freedom Online Coalition – and for taking a focus on equality today. 

The internet and digitalization are at the heart of most dimensions of human life and our societies today, and hence, it is also at the core of the work of my office on promoting human rights and equality. The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman´s mandate spans promotion of equality and addressing discrimination, functioning as the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, and monitoring returns of expelled third-country nationals. We see the results of digitalization both from the positive side in the promotion of inclusion, and the grimmer side, in measures related to digitalization, which risk the integrity and rights of persons otherwise in risk of exclusion and marginalization. 

In this talk, my themes center around the beginning of the alphabet: Access, Algorithms and Abuse. 

First, access. Digital and mobile networks are a bedrock of modern societies – very much so eg. in Europe, but increasingly, also globally. Digitalization potentially offers persons belonging to vulnerable groups major opportunities of equal participation in our societies. The internet as a platform for information and exchange independent of time and place can, for instance, unleash a high level of self-determination for persons with disabilities. In order for this promise to also translate into practice, all digital services and applications must be designed consistently in an accessible manner, and access to them is ensured without exception. This is the only way to ensure that products and services can be used by all people to the same extent. 

The coronavirus pandemic has further accelerated the trend towards digitalization. Public information about the pandemic is mostly shared digitally, many children have taken the step towards digital learning, shopping happens on the internet, and public authorities could often only be reached virtually. This underlines that access also has an economic dimension: it is important for authorities to ensure affordable digital access for all, be it in school, through public libraries, or other public services. 

On both national and international level, strategies and measures, as well as financial support and public tenders in the area of digitalization and artificial intelligence ought to include accessibility, and measures to actively promote it. 

My second theme is algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The use of algorithms is entering virtually all areas of society, and the use of Big Data can offer us the possibilities for staggering insights. But the use of algorithms also poses serious risks to the personal integrity of individuals, and for strengthening structures which exclude and discriminate – and they can be used as instruments of gross human rights violations. The issue of ethnic profiling and its problems have been around for two decades, ever since ethnic profiling took on very systemic forms in the aftermath of 9/11, and data mining was used on massive scale to profile suspects of terrorism or terrorist sympathies, and profiling is still in the toolbox of security authorities all around the world. The work that has been done to balance the legitimate security interests of states with human rights and inclusion must continue in a systematic way. Human Rights Watch gave a press release yesterday on the use by Chinese officials of facial profiling in the targeting of grossly oppressive measures towards the Uighur minority. The tech industry´s corporate responsibility plays a key role. 

Also, on a more daily basis, profiling eg. in the area of recruitment may lead to outcomes which strengthen exclusive practices of persons of minority background. In the work of my office, we have also seen how profiling eg. in the financial sector can lead to discriminating practices in the granting of credits to persons. The use of algorithms needs to be regulated and monitored with a very holistic scope, in cooperation with the private sector.

The third issue that I wish to address is abuse. Abuse needs to be addressed in the context of an internet which is to serve freedom. The internet has been an extremely valuable tool for strengthening the base of civil society actors, be it the climate movement, human rights work, or the promotion of the rights of different minorities. The internet is a fantastic global library. But the internet has the downside of also being available for purposes based on cruelty, populism and oppression. Individuals, from young to old, and whole groups, can be the targets of threats, humiliation and disinformation, on a scale and with an intensity which was not really possible before the internet, or in established media. Hate speech can reach a level which also encourages and instigates violence. At its worst, hate speech will undermine freedom of speech and thought, and the possibilities for advocacy of the rights of all persons. Therefore, action is required both in state legislation, the courts, the security authorities, all public actors, and all operators in the area of digital media and platforms.  

To conlude: my hopes for the Finnish Presidency in the Freedom Online Coalition is that steps forward will be taken towards an inclusive internet which is accessible for all globally, that the use of artificial intelligence is assessed from a human rights and equality perspective in all situations, and that the abusive use of the internet which violates human rights is hampered. And: make sure to involve those whose situation we are addressing at any given moment. Involve civil society actors, activists, children, women, persons with disabilities: in consultations, conferences, online user panels, polls, technology development .The slogan of the international disability movement fits well here too, for inclusive digitalization work: Nothing about us, without us. 

All the best for the work of the Freedom Online Coalition! Have a good Human Rights Day!

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kristina Stenman held this speech in an online seminar "Free, accessible and safe internet for all" on international Human Rights Day 10th December 2020. The seminar was organised by the Foreign Ministry of Finland and the Finnish Internet Forum.