Young people today have grown up with digital tools at their fingertips. We’ve yet to understand how their lives have been and will be impacted by the digital world. The digital development has gone faster than any country’s legal protections of digital rights. We’re only catching up – which is why we urgently must join hands to create the global movement for young people’s digital rights.

Fondation Botnar and Amnesty International in collaboration with Restless Development and GNP+ organized an event on young people’s leadership in digital rights during the Women Deliver 2023 Conference in Kigali, Rwanda. Speakers and participants discussed digital rights and young people showed how they’re taking the lead on promoting and safeguarding these rights.

So, what are digital rights?

Maria Malomalo speaking at the event on young people's digital rights, with a microphone wearing glasses, a bright multicolored shirt with a green background.
Maria Malomalo, speaking at the Fondation Botnar and Amnesty International event at Women Deliver 2023. Photo credit: Zamda Kavamahanga/Girls’ Globe

“Digital rights are an extension of human rights. We are taking our human rights into the digital realm,” says Maria Malomalo, Feminist & Senior International Research Manager, Restless Development.

Digital rights encompass all the aspects of how the digital world affects our human rights – from privacy to safety online. This includes protection from social media’s addictive algorithms and freedom from surveillance by these tech corporations. It’s also the understanding that online crimes like cyberstalking or revenge porn are violence and actual crimes.

Beyond safety, digital rights also include the accessibility gap that exists globally, where many young people are left behind. This tech divide is increasing existing inequalities, which is a major concern for global development.

What are some challenges to digital rights today?

As we look to those who have grown up and are growing up with digital technology in their every day lives – their rights are far too often overlooked. Children and young people today have little to no protection against surveillance, data collection and online violence.

“This tech, social media, is shaped by the society that created systems of oppression.”

– Rowella Marri, Project Officer at Digital Disruptors Philippines, Amnesty International.

During the event, injustice, discrimination and crimes happening online were discussed. Speakers mentioned other forms of online harrassment like, sextortion, cyberstalking, cyberbullying, hate speech and non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

Mental health outcomes linked to social media use was discussed, as well as how racism, homophobia and transphobia is a major problem online. Spaces that were initially seen as safe and used to promote human rights are now being used for surveillance and censorship. A participant shared the harrowing story of how queer people were tracked down via dating apps in Morocco to be harassed and abused, which led to two confirmed suicides.

Nomtika Mjwana speaking at the event on young people's digital rights, holding a microphone, wearing a beige blazed and shirt. A green background.
Nomtika Mjwana. Photo credit: Zamda Kavamahanga/Girls’ Globe

“We’re operating in political landscapes. In Uganda, Netflix is no longer going to stream queer content. We’re seeing that racism is still happening, homophobia and transphobia is still happening in the digital world. Yes, the platforms are there, but censorship is there as well,” says Nomtika Mjwana, Senior Advocacy Officer, GNP+ Digital Officer.

Big tech companies and governments alike are doing very little to protect young people’s digital rights. There is also very little data on how the failure to protect children and young people are affecting their lives.

What’s being done to promote and safeguard digital rights?

The RIGHTS Click Initiative has been launched by Fondation Botnar and Amnesty International.

RIGHTS Click is all about connecting our digital rights with our human rights. It will build a global movement for young people’s digital rights. The initiative aims to drive change through research for evidence-based policy recommendations, awareness-raising and accountability of governments and tech companies.

RIGHTS Click has launched a Digital Disruptors project, giving young people the opportunity to lead their own initiatives to promote digital rights.

Halima Nyota is a Digital Disruptor from Kenya. Halima was part of founding Linda Data, an online campaign focused on safeguarding the digital rights of young people – with a specific focus on data protection. An initial survey showed that Kenyan youth felt that the misuse of personal data was one of their major concerns. The campaign aims to educate and support young people to navigate the digital world safely and confidently.

Rowella Marri is a gender and digital rights youth activist and Project Officer at Digital Disruptors Philippines, Amnesty International. Rowella spoke about their work in the Philippines to help protect young people from online gender based violence and abuse. By using language that resonates with Filipino youth, they are educating their peers and calling out harassment and abuse on social media.

Young Feminists Fearless Holding the Line uncovers the challenges for feminist activists in the online space.

The young feminists of Iran inspired Restless Development to focus their annual report on feminist movements. Their initial global survey in 82 countries connected with feminists to understand their issues.

The first thing they discovered was that feminist movements are led by young people.

Restless Development also found that young feminists use social media to promote their work, to challenge and to mobilize. The more these young feminists participated in these online feminist movements, the more mental health challenges they had. The findings showed that this was particularly true for women and non-binary individuals. These young feminists faced a lot of security concerns as well, and worried about their safety offline too.

The report concluded that feminist movement-builders are digital natives, but gatekeeping by big tech companies and online harassment are major challenges to social media use.

Envisioning a new digital world

“Big tech needs to be decolonized and feminized,” says Maria Malomalo calling out the white men leading big tech today and the biases of the AI that they own

As young people and young feminist movements push for the protection and advancement of digital rights, we must join this global movement. This includes regulation, accountability and radical change.

“One thing that young people need is the process of accountability. What is it we are committing to young people in protecting and promoting digital rights?”

– Halima Nyota

There are still many questions that remain unanswered as we try to envision and create a new digital world. Will young people gain the trust from adults to lead in the digital rights space? Will young people learn to trust adults despite their disregard of digital rights? What commitments will we see from governments and big tech to truly protect and advance digital rights around the world? It remains to be seen.

What we see now is that young people have already begun to create a global movement for digital rights and they’re inviting all of us to join them! Let’s be the allies they need to grow and lead this urgent global movement.

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