This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
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The world is going through a tremendous shift, right from the advent of technology to the boom of accessibility for the common person. We can see them benefiting from the advent and advancements of technology, while mostly it has empowered them to exercise their rights, especially those classified as fundamental rights, but on the flip side, it has made us vulnerable in an equal sense of losing our fundamental rights. Sounds confusing? This essay is exactly what it is meant to be; it will clear up the clutter around the key concepts of fundamental rights, technology, and their relationship. We will delve into these concepts but before that, we need to understand what these concepts mean.
Fundamental rights : a harbinger of free life
When we say rights, what do we mean? A right in legal terms can simply be defined as any action of a person that the law permits the freedom to do. If this is clear, then fundamental rights are nothing but those sets of rights that are sacrosanct for humans to exist; they are fundamental for any modern state, hence the name fundamental rights. For instance, we often hear about freedom of speech, which is one of the fundamental rights that constitutions across the major democracies provide for their citizens to easily dissent their opinions freely and fearlessly. For example, in the Indian Constitution, Article 19 provides for its citizens the freedom of speech and expression, which enable us to express our thoughts, speeches, and expressions.
Imagine an autocratic country where the concept of rights in general and fundamental rights in particular are non-existent, in such countries, citizens are not free to dissent; whatever the king says is the final word, and no one can step out of that and disagree with those words. On a lighter note, the movie “The Dictator” represents this kind of instance where the dictator abruptly imprisons or kills those who did not follow his orders. Bringing our discussion back to the idea of fundamental rights and technology, there are a few niche areas where fundamental rights have been affected positively due to technology. Let us try to first quote a few particular Fundamental rights mentioned in our constitution under Part III (3) broadly important articles are, Article 15, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 19, which protects certain rights regarding freedom of speech and expression. Article 21, which protects life and personal liberty.
Before analysing the impact of technology on fundamental rights, let us try to understand what this technology is in the first place.
Technology is technically the application of scientific knowledge, tools, techniques, and processes to solve problems, create products, and achieve various objectives; simply to quote a dialogue from the movie, “Technology is anything and everything that makes life easier, simpler, and better.” Now it becomes crucial for us to understand why and how technology has a profound impact on our fundamental rights.
Impacts of technology on fundamental rights
Advancements in technology in recent decades have had a profound impact on fundamental rights, from information to empowerment. Take the example of technology as a platform to empower people of different backgrounds. For instance, if traditionally a particular caste worked as manual scavengers, but with advancements in technology many sewer cleaning robots have been deployed across the country, the example developed in Telangana is worth mentioning, where instead of manual scavenging robots are used to clean the sewer lines (Sewer crocs to clear choked lines in Hyderabad | Hyderabad News – Times of India (indiatimes.com). This is directly an example where one caste is benefiting from the atrocities committed and is it not relevant to one of the fundamental rights mentioned previously, Article 15?
Of course, technology like this has a profound impact on humanity. As such, people traditionally employed in discriminating jobs have found a new way of life filled with much dignity and respect. Data from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reveals that in 2023, the number of deaths caused by manual scavenging was 9, while it was 117 in 2019, despite having a law, namely the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Since 2013, with the post-implementation of technology and stricter enforcement of laws, we have achieved partial success in eradicating manual scavenging. There is still a lot to be done to completely eradicate it; however, this proves that technology has played an important role in uplifting and protecting the fundamental rights of people.
Another major impact of technology on fundamental rights would be leveraging information technology. It has a direct impact on one of our most crucial rights, namely the fundamental right to free speech and expression. Who will not agree that the world of information technology, mainly social media platforms, has empowered them to seek and speak their thoughts out to the people freely and fairly? This has not only empowered but also been a voice for the voiceless. How could we imagine this? For instance, if you find something disturbing, say a bad road for which no official is taking accountability and responsibility. What will you do? Take this issue to social media, say ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), create a hashtag (#) and just wait for the issue to rise on its own. Leaders in the higher ranks of the government are proactive these days on such social media platforms. It is also worth mentioning that governance has been revolutionising. The “Hyderabad Declaration,” officially known as the 24th National Conference on e-Governance 2021, has brought` next-generation administrative reforms to bring citizens and government closer on digital platforms. Many have been proactive in taking this up and rightly naming it ‘Twitter governance’. As such, these platforms have no national or international boundaries and have helped us reach out to different societies and cultures, thereby making us what we are, “Global Citizens.” Talking about borderless reach, technology additionally has a profound impact on one of our crucial rights, called the “Right to Life.”
Article 21 of the Indian constitution mentions one of the fundamental rights called the Right to Life and Personal Liberty, and when we refer to the concept of life it has a wide meaning as put forth by the honourable Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978), in which the meaning of life was interpreted as not only a mere bodily existence but a wider array of concepts, it would be right to say that technology has become a part and parcel of human comfort and this comfort is directly relatable to the factor of life, say technology such as Automobiles, Communication devices and other relatable equipment’s from the most common ones to the most complex ones have had a deep impact on our lives and our rights. Having said so, is it only a positive impact of technology on fundamental rights?
Impacts of technology on fundamental rights: the other side of the same coin
The answer will be a big no. Technology is a double-edged sword; if it has at one instance empowered fundamental rights, on the other it has created a crack in the same. For instance, in the notorious “Pegasus” scandal, it was alleged that the government in power was using military-grade spyware to snoop into the mobile phones of various personalities to check on their activities, which, if proven, leads to blatant misuse of power and a violation of Articles 19 and 21. Further, another instance of violation can be said to be the usage of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which states that any person who sends, using a computer resource or a communication device:
- any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
- any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device; or
- any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages. It will be punishable with imprisonment for a term that may extend to three years and a fine.
Section 66A was contrary to both free speech and life but thankfully, the famous case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India (2015) was a landmark judgement where the Supreme Court of India struck down the section, thereby protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens and enabling them to use technology freely. Instances like this show how technology, while enabling citizens to access their fundamental rights, may also lead to equal denial. These issues can be further substantiated using the case laws related to this topic.
Case studies illustrating tech influences on fundamental rights
Case 1: Right to Privacy, The “K.S Puttaswamy Judgement”
The Honourable Supreme Court in this judgement, with unanimity, reaffirmed that privacy is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. This judgement came at a crucial juncture when digital footprints of individuals and related abuses were on the rise; hence, it is of utmost importance for us to consider that after this judgement, the government appointed “The Committee of Experts on a Data Protection Framework for India,” commonly referred to as the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Committee, which finally culminated into the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023. Privacy is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is viewed as a human right. For a quick fact, do you know that, during the age of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), people in that age respected privacy? It was proved by analysing the architectural styles where the main doors of the home usually did not face the main road so that no one could try to peek in and disturb the privacy. This is how important privacy is; from the Indus Valley to international relations, privacy has, is, and will be a key right for every citizen.
Case 2: Freedom of Speech
The right to freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy and an essential component of individual expression and participation in public discourse. With the advent of technology, individuals now have unprecedented platforms to express their opinions and ideas to a wider audience. Social media platforms and online forums have provided a space for individuals to engage in discussions, share information, and advocate for their beliefs. However, technology has also presented challenges to freedom of speech. One challenge is the rise of online censorship and surveillance. Governments, corporations, and other entities could monitor and control online content, potentially restricting individuals’ ability to express themselves freely. This view has been further reinforced by the revelations regarding the highly intrusive and indiscriminate internet surveillance practices carried out by the US, UK, and other EU states. These revelations have exposed the extent to which privacy can be compromised in the digital age. The impact of technology on fundamental rights, specifically privacy and freedom of speech, are fundamental human rights that play vital roles in the functioning of democratic societies. They protect individuals against threats such as social control, mass surveillance, censorship, and loss of autonomy and human dignity.
Challenges in balancing fundamental rights and technology
While it is now established that technology and fundamental rights have both positive and negative impacts, technological advancements have brought numerous benefits, but they have also raised significant concerns related to privacy, freedom of expression, equality, and more. Privacy concerns, surveillance, government power, freedom of expression, the digital divide, and equality are a few concerns. Additionally, regulatory compliance is one of the major challenges as technology operates globally, and issues such as data flows, content moderation and legal jurisdiction can be complex.
Strategies to protect fundamental rights in digital age
Protecting fundamental rights in the digital age requires a multi-faceted approach that combines legal, technological, and societal efforts. A few of the strategies to protect fundamental rights include, mainly, having a strong legal framework, robust data protection laws, user empowerment, and, crucially, digital literacy and education for people at large. Protecting fundamental rights in the digital era requires a collaborative effort involving governments, technology companies, civil society, academia, and individuals. It is important to ensure that technological advancements are harnessed to enhance human rights and well-being, rather than undermine them.
Technology is a sine qua non for the modern generation, without it, there is no life and no rights, technology has proactively enhanced the quality of life and empowered people greatly, it has been a voice for the voiceless, but however, complete dependence on technology for human comfort and rights will come at a cost, as Yuval Noah Harari rightly mentions in his book “Homo Deus,” where over-dependence on technology will in future create a separate race among humans in terms of Haves and Have-nots if this was initially propounded by Karl Marx during the age of Industrialisation 1.0, the future Have and Have-nots are a direct result of Industrialisation 4.0. Those having access to technology will be considered a superior race and will be at a stage to dominate others. This is a practical observation; large companies controlling user data are already in the stage of colonising. This must be regulated considering a threat to humanity at large, and each stakeholder, government, corporations, data controllers and most importantly, we people are responsible for averting such future divisions amongst humanity by demanding accountability and enforceability on technology and its derivatives.
- Committee Reports (prsindia.org)
- Section 66A of The It Act (legalserviceindia.com)
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