Date: 
Wednesday 18 April 2018

Technology is creating new challenges to our rights but it is also a “democratising tool” that can facilitate positive change, says Human Rights Watch’s international executive director Kenneth Roth.

The Australian Human Rights Commission hosted Mr Roth for a public “RightsTalk” in conversation with Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow at the University of Sydney yesterday.

Cyber security, social media and hate speech, the challenges of mass displacement and the rise of populist leaders, were among the issues covered in a wide-ranging discussion.

Reflecting on a time when fax machines were at the cutting edge of modern communications, Mr Roth said that, while technology brings challenges, there would not be a modern day human rights movement without it.

“Today we have social media.  It lets us learn about things which were hidden away. Somebody always has a mobile phone and can take a picture and can post it,” Mr Roth said.

“It enables us to disseminate our information cheaply, easily, far and wide and it enables us to have a global conversation. 

“It is a democratising tool in many respects, despite its susceptibility to abuse.”

Mr Roth said although social media platforms are not traditional publishers like newspapers, it is still reasonable to expect that they monitor what is published, have clear standards, complaints mechanisms, and be able to respond quickly to hate speech.

“While there is a real problem here we also have to be worried about the remedies to ensure that we don’t get so attentive to so-called hate speech that we end up destroying free debate on social media,” he said. 

“Finding the right balance in there is not easy at all.”

Commissioner Santow, who is leading a major Australian Human Rights Commission project looking at the human rights impacts of technology, thanked Mr Roth for a robust discussion.

University of Sydney Law School co-hosted the RightsTalk, with Associate Professor Emily Crawford welcoming more than 300 members of the public into the University’s Charles Perkins Lecture Theatre.

More information about the Human Rights and Technology project is available here.