How to make digital rights a reality

Have you ever stopped to think about everything you do that needs digital technology? From e-mails to internet banking, from working on shared documents in the cloud, to accessing government services online, from booking your holidays, to connecting with loved ones, to the annoying chat bot that helps you through the steps to pay your electricity bill.

Digital technologies are virtually everywhere, and their omnipresence affects our societies. “Digital technologies and internet access have a tremendous potential to contribute to address inequalities, but also to exacerbate them when not well governed,” reads the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights website.

Today, it’s clear that digital technologies and the online space present both benefits and risks for people. For example, digital norms and standards are set by global technology companies, who make money by commodifying users’ interactions and communications. It’s also clear that there’s a stronger need to develop frameworks to make sure that human rights exist virtually as well and that we have the tools to enforce them.

From principles to projects

Cities have been working together to put Digital Rights Principles into practice. For example, the Coalition brings cities together to exchange and learn from each other to then take action in projects like the Citizens Voices for Digital Rights (CVDR), working with Democratic Society, an independent non-profit organisation. “The CVDR programme sought to engage, equip, and ultimately empower citizens with the skills, knowledge, and tools to self-advocate for their digital rights,” explains Milou Jansen, Coordinator of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights.

The project run in the municipalities of Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Milan, and Tirana, provided an opportunity to rethink and redefine what it means to be a citizen in a digital democracy considering that today, democratic questions are intimately linked with digitalisation.

“CVDR really seeks to respond to the need to open up the debates on digitalisation processes and digital rights to the participation of the wider public,” says Dr Paola Pierri, in charge of the CVDR pro-gramme at Democratic Society. “It’s all about how citizens can advance digital rights and what we can do to empower them.”

When citizens feel like they have little control over their data and their rights, they experience a lack of agency in navigating the digital city. “We delivered the Citizens Voices for Digital Rights programme during the pandemic, and through the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights we tried to connect various cities and help each other,” says Faola Hodaj, Innovation Director in Tirana. The health crisis made the project all the more relevant and challenging, as issues of digital poverty and access to digital tools were exacerbated.

Each city held a series of workshops with residents, experts, and policy makers around the topic of digital rights, and related opportunities and challenges. “The workshops were an opportunity to learn something new in terms of digital rights. For example, we saw that the community was not very well informed because the topic in Albania is not so recognised,” says Hodaj.

To guarantee access and inclusion, the cities had to make sure that the participants reflected the demographics of the city, they also had to offer participants access to an internet connection or tech equipment to join the online workshop, and promotion of the events had to be done offline as well as online. For example, Tirana used its extensive network of libraries to allow participants to join the workshops from the free computers available there.

Which digital rights are important to people?

Women teaching each other computer skills

The workshops gave citizens’ a voice as they listed the issues that were important to them. Digital education and digital literacy, for example, were two of the top themes that came out of the discussions in Bordeaux and Tirana. Digital education means giving users the skills to take advantage of the opportunities of digital and understand how to do so in a secure and critical way that empowers them.

Digital literacy, on the other hand, focuses on the right to information, like the actual energy expenditure of a digital service or the prerequisites for the use of a digital site so that users can be aware of the real consequences and results when making choices.

Tirana stressed the importance to raise awareness around digital rights and their impact to citizens everyday life in Albania as the general public is still not sufficiently aware of the relevance of these issues.

Bordeaux’s participants “discussed the need for more participation in data governance processes, together with the importance of trustworthy data being collected and presented in usable and context-relevant ways so that they could support more transparency in citizens decisions,” reads the Citizens Voices for Digital Rights report. Especially considering data can be collected in cities even about those who are not online, like residents that simply use public transport.

Tirana’s participants also discussed the need to know more about the ownership and protection of data, including the use of personal data by various stakeholders for profit, and whether protection regarding this should be included in Albanian legislation.

Participants in Bordeaux encouraged “the development of common accessibility standards at European level and the right of people to know and understand the real uses and obstacles related to the use of digital technology in their respective populations.”

User experiences should be improved so that they don’t exclude anyone, for example seniors, nor create specific barriers to entry. Users that are excluded from using digital technology, evidently are also excluded from the benefits that come with using them. Digital inequalities are not only related to ‘having’ or ‘not having’, but also to access due, for example, to technology design and engagement.

In Milan, participants were particularly concerned about freedom of speech, but also misinformation and cyber-bullying. How to balance freedom of expression and protecting users? Participants explored how to raise awareness within readers and educate people to avoid fake news and seek verified content. They also considered educating people to understand the harm in generating and spreading misinformation, fuelling polarisation, and threatening democracy.

In Barcelona, the pandemic has accelerated the need for decent internet connections as a way to access public services. Laia Bonet, Barcelona’s Deputy Mayor and Chair of Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum, explained that “digitalisation has accelerated and transformed the way we relate to each other, to the public administration, our school, our company. Many of these changes are here to stay.

We have also seen that access to the internet, having the right devices and having the skills to use digital services determine our access to basic rights: to education, to work, to public services.”

Committing to digital inclusion policies is key to guaranteeing a fair digital transition that is capable of creating new opportunities
— Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona

In many cases, it is the most vulnerable people and communities that have been left behind, therefore “committing to digital inclusion policies is key to guaranteeing a fair digital transition that does not generate new inequalities in the city, but on the contrary, that is capable of creating new opportunities accessible to all,” said Bonet.

Tirana takes action

View of Tirana
View of the city of Tirana

Apart from getting involved in the Citizens Voices for Digital Rights project, cities work on multiple other concrete initiatives to make digital rights a reality. For example, in Tirana the BiblioTech project “enables the community to use the public libraries that are in each neighbourhood to use the tools and to follow courses on new technologies,” says Hodaj.

Thanks to BiblioTech, residents in Tirana can follow courses on how to assert their digital rights, how to access the internet safely, how to protect themselves from cyberbullying, but also learn how to code. “Tirana has set the example with the BiblioTech pilot project, and now other cities in Albania are interested in implementing it,” says Hodaj.

In addition to the BiblioTech project, the city also supports other organisations giving training for programming and coding to different age groups. To promote accessibility, the municipality has installed high broadband connection, so that people can access the Internet everywhere in the city.

“We have free Wi-Fi spots throughout the city that are also safe,” says Hodaj. “Abusive or harmful content is made inaccessible to users. We also don’t collect any user data through them.”

To offer the best digital services and education to its people, the city is aware that it needs to promote capacity building and learning within its staff too. “People need to be trained more and need to learn more,” says Hodaj.

Barcelona tackles lack of internet access and digital illiteracy

View of Barcelona ©Mohammad-Ali-Niksejel

Barcelona increased its efforts for fair access to digital tools after noting that, once the pandemic started, internet access was a major concern. With offices closed, services started being offered online, creating an issue for those without a reliable internet connection – or any internet connection – the necessary digital skills or adequate computers.

Laia Bonet explains that “while digital transformation allowed many of us to get on with our lives during confinement, for people suffering from digital exclusion, the challenge was twofold: to cope with the pandemic, and to do so without access to key digital tools.”

For people suffering from digital exclusion, the challenge was twofold: to cope with the pandemic, and to do so without access to key digital tools
— Laia Bonet

So, an emergency plan was developed by the city, “with digital trainers in municipal offices in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods who could support neighbours who did not know how to apply for the new rental subsidies, send an email, or make a video call. And we also created a small multicultural team to support families with school-age children whose parents could not support them in the transition to online education,” explained Bonet.

Barcelona also conducted a city-wide survey to understand the main characteristics of digital exclusion and found out that 1% of the population simply cannot afford to have access to the internet, also that higher-income households had more devices from where to access the internet, particularly laptops, whereas low-income households had fewer devices and often they were smartphones, making it necessary for services to be also accessible through mobile connections and to provide proper devices.

A pilot programme, Connectem Barcelona, is being implemented in one of Barcelona’s poorest neighbourhoods through combined efforts of the city council, local social and educational services of the area and with the engagement of private partners such as IT providers or private telecommunications operators, providing free internet access, computers, and training for around 400 families.

Bonet stressed that “we need solid and structural policies of digital inclusion to guarantee access to basic rights in the digital age, and to put technology at the service of social needs, not the other way around.”

In Murcia, closing the digital divide is the main task

Bridge in Murcia
View of Murcia

As in Barcelona, the city of Murcia has also noted the need for inclusion through the offer of decent internet connection to all its citizens. Kasper van Hout, European Programmes Department, Murcia City Hall explained that they “are tackling basic issues that are cross-cutting in access, examples include our e-governance model that allows for 93% of all municipal bureaucratic procedures to be managed and filed online, as well as basic access and availability of the internet and municipal services there present.”

Municipal libraries are equipped with all the necessary hardware and software, as well as internet connection, for any citizen, free of charge, be able to access public services and for recreational purposes.

The importance of digital inclusion lies in its core premises of availability, anywhere, any time
— Kasper van Hout

Thinking of those who might face difficulties in using technology, Murcia developed “a programme in senior-citizens’ centres and women’s centres to host training on the use of computers, smartphones and tablets, which includes the use of municipal services related to e-governance or the Murcia Smart-City appliances,” said van Hout, also noticing that “the importance of Digital Inclusion lies in its core premises of availability, anywhere, any time, and citizens not aware, skilled or with resources to use these services available to them, are at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers.”

The results seem clear, celebrates van Hout, with citizens responding positively to Murcia’s initiatives, “especially our initiative to provide school-going children with stable internet access in case they need it, ensuring their education during the periods in which schools were closed, or the elderly citizens’ initiative to fight isolation and loneliness.”

Addressing social inequality in Amsterdam

View of Amsterdam

When it comes to digital challenges, Amsterdam can always be cited as a successful example. The city has distributed devices for people to connect to the internet to 3,500 households in response to the Corona crisis. The city also financially supports Cybersoek, an organisation that helps digitally illiterate people to enter the online world and teaches them how to use computers in two of the city’s poorer areas.

Other initiatives such as PublicRoam, offering free WiFi in over 50 locations throughout the city without the need of having to share data for commercial purposes, are also worth mentioning.

Besides helping its citizens to stay connected, Amsterdam also promotes initiatives for digital participation, such as Open Stad, “a software that has been designed to make participation easier for people,” explains Jansen, the Coordinator of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. With the app, people can easily vote in projects of their interest in their own area. There is also Polis, a software that aims to collect opinions over certain issues and debates, and makes links between people that have common opinions.

Finally, Amsterdam has its own Cyberbank, focused on low-income citizens and inspired by food banks. In it explains Jansen, Amsterdam residents can “can pick up a laptop there against payment of a deposit of 20 euros. They can keep it or return it after use. In the latter case, they will get the 20 euros back.”

All of these initiatives are aimed at “minimising the digital inequalities in our cities. This includes access, skills, and opportunities. This is not the problem of one person only, it is a structural and societal problem. Having limited access to the online world has consequences for education, work, social network, and health. This may lead to less opportunities to advance your digital skills. When addressing digital inequality, this has to be taken into account at all times,” notes Jansen.

The future is in our actions

Though cities do a lot on their own, it is through opportunities to exchange and learn from each other, like the ones proposed by the Coalition, that can really make the difference. To continue its work in this direction, the Coalition has developed a first iteration of a Digital Rights Governance Framework in co-creation with city officers and experts. Cities are invited to participate in testing it on the ground and improving it together.

The aim is to provide cities with a model that is adapted to their local needs and challenges, and that will give them tools to develop city-wide implementation of digital rights. Emerging technologies are setting the pace, and cities are doing their best to match it to guarantee their citizens’ rights.

Find out more about the Digital Rights Governance Framework and how to get involved here.

This story was written in collaboration with Raphaël Garcia de Souza, Communication Specialist at Eurocities.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer