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Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70 (part 2)

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the American Journal of International Law organised a symposium to discuss the relevance of this historical document for a 21st century society that is facing problems that could not be imagined seventy years ago, such as dystopian forms of digitalisation and surveillance and life-threatening climate change. The Future Citizen Institute will dedicate a few posts to symposium papers that draw inspiration from the UDHR in coping with these contemporary challenges.

The contributions by Helmut Aust and Catherine Powell focus on the role of algorithms in our digital age, with Aust discussing the concept of ‘algorithmic authority’ – that is, ‘the exercise of authority over individuals based on the more or less automated use of algorithms’. This, he feels, poses a fundamental challenge to the notions of human agency and responsibility: ‘to the extent that decisions of the state are based on the exercise of algorithmic authority, th[e] human bond between the rights-holder and the state (and its organs) starts to disappear’. While human agency, which implies feelings such as empathy, traditionally ensured that an authority should be able to give reasons for a particular decision or justify its exercise of power, Aust thinks it is highly problematic when automated decision-making becomes the norm. The conventional recourse to ‘transparency’ as an answer to this problem will not work, in his view, as ‘it is very unclear whether the processes behind the exercise of algorithmic authority lend themselves to such an identification and translation process. The highly technical nature of the underlying data operations will potentially limit what transparency can achieve here’.

In addition to the challenge to the notion of human agency, Aust argues that algorithms will impact the ‘infrastructure of democratic decision-making’. The underlying idea is that democracy can only work if information is accessible to all members of the public. However, the revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA, the ‘filter bubbles’ in which a large part of the citizenry live, and the use of the internet and related technological innovations for surveillance purposes, among others, lead Aust to conclude that little is left of the initial euphoria about the liberatory potential of the internet.

Powell takes a similarly pessimistic view, arguing in a paper on race and rights in the digital age that Artificial Intelligence has so far failed to contribute to the realisation of race equality guarantees in human rights law. Instead, by importing many of the human biases, ‘AI has replicated the dehumanizing features of racism’. Describing race as a ‘deeply entrenched social construct’, she explains how until recently Facebook and Airbnb used AI to categorize its users by ‘ethnic affinities’. Thus,

as we surf the web, third parties collect information on our buying habits, political preferences, and other data, enabling them to predict not only our consumer and political desires, but also our racial identities. The collection of information about individuals’ race and nationality has particularly dire consequences for minorities at risk of police profiling, other adverse governmental determinations, or predatory private decision-making.
Referring to the concept of algorithmic citizenship that the Future Citizen Institute reported on previously, Powell also claims that ‘we are no longer merely citizens (or subjects) of particular nations, but also “algorithmic citizens” (or “data subjects”) where consumer preferences—and racial identities—can be gleaned through each person’s digital footprint’.

Both Aust and Powell therefore worry about the potentially dehumanizing processes under AI-inspired automated decision-making. As both consider it unlikely that the UDHR will be replaced with a new human rights document anytime soon, the UDHR will remain the key inspiration for enabling the realization of human rights in an age witnessing a technological progress that could not have been envisaged seventy years ago.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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