Human Rights in the Digital Age: Course Reflections

I‘d like to  share my experience teaching a class I designed and taught this summer, Human Rights in the Digital Age, and discuss how the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet (draft in progress by IRP experts) will be helpful in future education-advocacy efforts.

I. Format

II. Outcomes

III. Challenges

IV. Things I Would Do Differently

V. Role of the Charter in education/advocacy

I. Format:

The course was offered in an accelerated format taught at the undergraduate level (juniors and seniors, traditional and adult learners), at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest.

You can find syllabus, PowerPoints, and student work on the class wiki ( ). Check out the student paper on HADOPI laws and the Digital Economy Act – “FOX Final.docx” under Research Papers link.

I used the terrific collection Human Rights in the Global Information Society (Jørgensen. Ed. 2006), complimented by newer essays, case studies and examples that highlight the worrying trend of the erosion of human rights online (ACTA, Hadopi, net neutrality challenges, state censorship, privacy violations, copyright culture, sexism, digital colonization, cultural imperialism), and the rising collective civil society efforts to confront these trends at every level.

I basically ran the class as a graduate seminar with panel discussions led by student groups of four providing chapter reviews that covered:

1) the significance of research (often stated as a problem or issue that needs to be addressed),

2) central themes or specific suggestions to address the issues raised

3) implication of results (possible limitations in the chapter, and suggestions for future research)

4) and finally, to pose a discussion question with the entire class as respondents.

So each week students read four chapters – analyzing one in depth – and answered each others’ prompts posted to the class wiki as comments.

I opened and closed classes with short lectures (2 x 20-25 min. per 3 hour class; access to my PowerPoints here: ).

II. Outcomes:

-students were very mobilized by the Human Rights framework of looking at the Internet and networked technologies. (The college also offers a service learning trip to the UN in NY every summer to study the Millennium Development Goals). Class was at full capacity – rare for Summer classes – with only one person dropping (18 students).

-students familiarized themselves with the relationships between ICTs and UDHRs, as well as the role of international and national law, regulation and policy

-students gained knowledge that ICTs both upheld and undermined certain rights for certain populations

-students gained an appreciation for the role of civil society and user rights in global information society

-students were encouraged to formulate and express their opinions, to take a stand but also to identify ways that they could go further in engaging these issues (e.g. at the level of advocacy, education, information literacy, awareness raising, and fighting back as users)

-some students were able to make local-global connections around ICT use and Human Rights. One student mentioned that at the College janitors/custodians were refused email accounts by their superior (hand-picked printed announcements were posted on a physical bulletin board). Having an email account provides information about the college, community events, school security issues, building maintenance, and service learning opportunities. Students identified withholding email accounts as a right to information issue, solidifying their resolve to pursue the cause.

-issues that students were particularly receptive to included: Freedom of Expression, Copyright and file sharing networks, Right to Information laws, Internet filtering, privacy on social networks, and defamation, libel, and slander issues including cyberbullying and sexting (though sexting also involves privacy and other rights).

III. Challenges:

Some of the challenges I faced in class fall under two categories, 1) US-Centric standpoints or bias 2) level of complexity (scale and scope) of the topic.

1) US Centric issues include:

-tensions between UN multilateralism vs. state autonomy or unilateralism

-issues of security trumping privacy and freedom of expression

-neoliberal capitalism as the only economic sphere of intelligibility (often raised in discussions of international development)

2) Complex issues that were difficult to cover in the time frame at the undergraduate level:

-the field of Internet Governance

-knowledge about the Internet and ICTs from a stratification or layers approach (basically how the Net works)

-lack of knowledge about theories of development

-lack of knowledge about the history of colonialism, imperialism, and the processes of globalization that contributes to many kinds of inequalities characterized by political, economic, and cultural dominance.

-local-global connections

IV. Things I would do differently:

-assign respondents to panel presentations instead of having the class to respond on a volunteer basis,

-more workshopping and less autonomous presentations,

-workshop UDHR’s relationship to ICTs more in the first class (I assumed too much here)

-provide a more basic introduction to what the Web is and how it works,

-go into more depth about how ICTs are governed, role of IGF, ICANN, intermediaries, ISPs

-provide more about the Political Economy of ICTs including issues of competition and cooperation, and market dominance)

V. How the HR Charter will help immeasurably in classes like this:

-it would be extremely helpful to have available a foundational document that already transposes human rights to the Internet, which can help accelerate comprehension about the relationships between ICTs and HRs

-the normative weight of the Charter would challenge students to reflect on their beliefs, which will help them form opinions through their engagement with strong arguments and unequivocally expressed opinions

-the Charter will help mainstream the interpretation of human rights online, which can help teach any class dealing with ICTs and ethics, human rights, international development, globalization, intercultural communication, political science and critical theory.

Ultimately, the Charter will empower me as an educator by providing a strong advocacy statement and powerful teaching tool (like the Jørgensen collection) that can help inform students about the the role ITCs can play in upholding human rights online and off.

Thank you in advance for any suggestions and/or comments, and I am really looking forward to the Charter.



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