We need more than ‘just’ Digital Rights Principles

8 February 2022

The European Commission recently released a Declaration for Digital Rights, which doesn’t introduce any new rights, but rather collects in one place all existing rights relevant to the digital age, becoming the reference point for the EU’s idea of a fair and ethical digital environment.

The Declaration therefore complements existing rights, such as data protection, e-privacy, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights through existing or upcoming policy proposals like the AI Act and the Digital Service Act, as well as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The principles and rights in the Declaration will guide the EU and Member States in designing digital rules and regulations.

The Declaration is based on a human-centric approach to the digital transformation focusing on solidarity and inclusion. In people’s everyday life, this should mean, for example, high-speed digital connectivity everywhere and for everybody, digital skills for everyone, seamless access to public services, a safe digital environment, transparency on the environmental impact of our digital products, control over our personal data etc.

A parallel with cities

“We welcome the declaration and look forward to the next steps and how it will impact cities,” said Dorthe Nielsen, Eurocities Executive Director in a tweet reacting to the Declaration. “It resonates with efforts of European cities to address citizens’ digital rights, dedicating action to bridge the digital divide and ensure putting citizens at the centre of cities’ digital transformation.”

Cities have been advocating for and acting around digital rights for a while, for example through the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights.

The Coalition promotes and defends digital rights in the urban context through city action. Thanks to city-to-city collaboration the Coalition guides cities and helps them resolve common digital challenges and work towards legal, ethical, and operational frameworks to advance human rights in the digital environment.

Clear parallels can be drawn between the principles at the base of the Coalition and those collected under the new European Declaration. Both commit to strengthening democracy in the digital environment, as well as diversity, solidarity, and inclusion.

“Everyone should have access to affordable and accessible internet and digital services on equal terms, as well as the digital skills to make use of this access and overcome the digital divide,” reads the Coalition’s principles. “Everyone should be able to use the technologies of their choice, and expect the same level of interoperability, inclusion and opportunity in their digital services.”

Other shared core principles are transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination of data, content, and algorithms, as well as data protection, privacy, and security. In addition, the European Declaration also commits to “supporting the development and use of sustainable digital technologies that have minimal environmental and social impact,” and to “developing and deploying digital solutions with a positive impact on the environment and climate.”

From principles to projects

It’s not just talk. The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights brings cities together to exchange and learn from each other to then take action. For example, it worked with Democratic Society, an independent non-profit organisation, and the municipalities of Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Milan, and Tirana on the Citizens Voices for Digital Rights (CVDR) project.

Find out about more projects run by cities on Digital Rights 

Putting everything together in a package for the future

Citiscape where people are building an online page

For cities, places like the Coalition where they can exchange and learn from each other are precious. “It’s important for cities to share their experience with partners and other cities,” says Hodaj. “We need more good practices and sharing and also failures sharing, because sometimes we learn more from those.”

The Coalition has just recently worked on developing a Digital Rights Governance Framework to be tested and improved by cities to help the implementation of digital rights locally. “The principles are useful for policymakers to take a stand,” says Jansen, “but cities would like more guidance for implementation. We want to create a more practical service focusing on making things more concrete.”

The Framework touches on different areas and will be a chance for cities to take stock of what measures they have already in place as well as guide them on what other measures they could be implementing to guarantee digital rights. For example, they could see if they have or if they need a Digital Rights Bill or if they want to develop a Digital Rights House like in Amsterdam.

“A city might have a good tool to guarantee privacy for example, but lack a policy for equality,” explains Jansen. “We need to promote frameworks that both consider elements to protect the community as well as elements that allow the community to benefit from digitalisation.”

To test the Digital Rights Governance Framework in different contexts and to improve it through putting it into practice, the Coalition is launching a call for participation to the Digital Rights Helpdesk project. The Helpdesk will work with up to three cities to formulate and assess a Digital Rights Governance Framework to build capacity in digital rights thematic areas and to address the challenges cities are facing regarding the digitalisation of their services and, to some extent, of the city.

The Framework, which is conceived as a living and evolving model that can be tailored to local needs, gathers the foundations, structures and tools for developing a city-wide governance of digital rights, and can be used as a self-assessment tool and maturity model. The first iteration of the Framework has been co-created by city officers and international experts, and will be put into practice in the three cities that participate in the Helpdesk. The learnings from this experiences will be incorporated into the Framework, which will continue to improve and evolve to be better adapted to cities’ needs and to follow the fast-paced beat that defines emerging technologies.

In addition to feeding the Framework, the results of the Digital Rights Helpdesk project will be collected and will contribute to an international repository of instruments and best practices on digital rights. It is by continuing to collect and exchange knowledge and developing common guidelines for governing digital technologies that cities can properly guarantee that people’s human rights are enforced online too.

Would you like to become one of the cities to test the Digital Rights Governance Framework? Or would you like to become an expert for the Digital Rights Helpdesk? Apply by 27 February.

Cities can submit requests after which they are matched to a set of experts willing to help via coaching sessions, trainings or a masterclass. Experts will offer knowledge in digital participation, social justice and technology, digital strategy, digital policy, digital rights, data-ethics, digital governance, and related areas, to support the piloting. The goal is to set up a flexible network of advisors and address specific questions to understand the needs and topics of cities better.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer
Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer