As stewards of infrastructure, goods and services for collective benefit, local governments are asking themselves what public good means in the digital era. Integral to answering this question is defining and understanding the basic Digital Rights of all citizens. In this article, Emily Royall, Smart City Coordinator at the City of San Antonio, takes a closer look at Digital Rights and the role they can play in allowing communities to “move smart and build things”.

The frontlines of a battle for digital rights are being drawn in cities. In the last decade, the public right of way became a testbed for a generation of smart city innovations, from smart streetlights to facial recognition and e-Scooters. These innovations have challenged how cities think about data, procurement, and public engagement. Council staff are faced with the enormous task of not just achieving equity in technology access, but also evaluating new and complex technologies for their impact on the public good.

As a result, local governments have emerged as the early stewards of Digital Rights, which guarantee rights to digital access and protections as they relate to the use and experience of technology. In a recent article, Bart Rosseau from the City of Ghent and Tamas Erkelens from the City of Amsterdam explained how local governments are already establishing digital rights locally in several ways, including regulating digital markets, using procurement to shape ethical technology, and communicating with the public about what digital rights they can expect in their community.

Civil unrest in the US and the global pandemic have made digital transformation for local governments more urgent, and the challenges to public interest therein even more sobering. Health authorities now responsible for understanding and executing successful contact tracing don’t only need new digital infrastructure, they also need policies to help govern sensitive data. And as protesters took to the streets in response to the death of George Floyd, perennial concerns about police use of facial recognition and surveillance technology flared in cities and communities across the globe. Some cities like Portland, Oregon, responded with an outright ban of public and private facial recognition in recent months. 

As I write this, Google is preparing their defense of an antitrust lawsuit from the US Federal Government. Many of America’s largest technology companies who deliver smart city technologies face public scrutiny for unethical treatment of customer data, mismanagement of their roles as platforms for freedom of speech, or for shutting down third-party competition. 

While these efforts by the Federal Government may or may not be successful, it’s fair to say the public’s awareness of these issues and their impact in cities has substantially increased in the past few years, leading to a demand for transparency in development projects like Google Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside Development in Toronto.

Digital rights is still an emerging field, and it is not yet clear how to fully operationalise these principles in the real-world context of technologies like algorithmic decision-making that are increasingly embedded within the technologies local governments procure or build every day. However, cities are starting to take matters into their own hands, by repurposing the tools they have like ordinances, municipal codes, and procurement, to create a framework of public protections and commitments to digital rights.

What are Digital Rights?

Digital Rights are an extension of human rights for the internet era. Some governments are exploring a “digital bill of rights”, similar to a new social contract for digital technology. In 2018, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, transformed the legislative landscape, forcing companies to adapt their data policies to respect the newfound digital rights of EU citizens. Similarly, California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the recent Proposition 24, offer data-based digital rights to California residents.

It’s helpful to interpret Digital Rights as a “Hierarchy of Needs,” which social psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced in 1943. Maslow’s hierarchy establishes a progression of what human beings need to reach fulfillment. Similarly, certain needs should be met so that individuals can reach a level of “digital empowerment”.

Access: The right to access to basic internet infrastructure connection & devices

COVID-19 has revealed a digital divide in nearly every community in the US. School districts are struggling to make distance learning effective for families who are not connected, or under-connected. The ‘digital divide’ has been described in the US as a life or death situation, creating asymmetrical access to education and critical services throughout the pandemic.

Local governments like the City of San Antonio addressed this issue by studying it first. In 2019, the City of San Antonio did a grassroots assessment of their digital divide, by asking residents directly what their experience was with internet access, and tying that to zip codes and city council districts. The result was a “report card” of internet connectivity and digital literacy tied to each council district, and for the city as a whole.

Following the pandemic, San Antonio was able to use this survey data to demonstrate areas with barriers to connectivity which helped the local government allocate Federal funding for assistance for projects that helped to close the digital divide. 

Knowledge: The opportunity to develop skills to successfully use internet technology

What’s the value of being connected to the internet if residents aren’t able to use the internet safely or effectively to meet their needs? Digital literacy is theability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills,” according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Cities taking on efforts to connect residents to the internet, are also embracing digital literacy programs such as Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance.

Safety: Freedom to use internet technology safely, without being subject to unwanted surveillance, discrimination or harassment

Digital technologies can both enhance public safety and threaten it. The most obvious example of this is in cities is how smart surveillance technologies can impact discrimination in public space. 

In the wake of BLM protests in Portland, the City passed a ban on public facial recognition, and private facial recognition, set to begin in January 2021. The ban was initiated in part in response to expanding evidence that the algorithms behind facial recognition technology have been found to have age, race, and ethnic biases which can lead to mis-identification. Portland is also leveraging its municipal code to include principles of social and digital justice.

Other technologies using algorithms impact city services including waste services, hiring tools, smart street lights, and autonomous vehicles. The City of Amsterdam has taken steps to provide transparency about technologies the city uses that incorporate algorithms. Amsterdam’s AI Registry catalogs city services that use algorithms, in some cases including robust descriptions of how those algorithms work.

Privacy: The right to use internet technology free from personal data collection, tracking, analysis, and third party monetization without meaningful consent

While this pillar is arguably the responsibility of state and federal governments, American cities that find themselves operating in a legislative vacuum when it comes to privacy law are exploring how to create commitments as organizations to protect residents’ data. 

The City of Los Angeles is preparing a Digital Code of Ethics and Digital Bill of Rights that make commitments to residents about how their data will be protected and used. The Bill of Rights spans transparency, privacy, freedom of expression and access to data. The Digital Code of Ethics intended to be a document primarily for city staff, provides guidance on how employees should evaluate emerging technology for digital ethics according to commitments to equity, transparency and security among others. 

Control: The right to control and determine the “terms of use” of personal data generated by the use of internet technology, and derive benefit from it.

Control is certainly a hard value to achieve and measure. However, the European Union’s experimental “DeCode” project demonstrates innovation in virtual public participation and radical transparency that could lead to a new level of democratic empowerment for citizens. 

DeCode is an experimental project led by the City of Barcelona that piloted tools giving the public ownership of their data, and layered those with digital technologies for citizen-led data governance and democratic participation, including smart contracts and a data commons. The project was funded by the European Commission as a three-year project ending in December 2019. 

Fundamentally, DeCode is an experiment in decentralised data governance, where transactions are recorded and validated on a blockchain ledger. Citizens are allowed to set the parameters for sharing personal data, create and share dashboards of data in a data commons and conduct transactions such as voting or signing “smart contracts” that require identity authentication. Though still in a prototype phase, DeCode offers a vision of what a digital democracy looks like that treats data as a shared asset, and puts citizens at the center of its control.

Empowerment: The right to achieve self-empowerment and fulfillment through the use of internet technology.

There may not yet be an example in modern society that has successfully created a social contract with its citizens that offers this digital right to all. In reality, cities around the world continue to struggle with establishing the first pillar – a standard of internet access to residents.

Move smart and build things

The twin impacts of digital innovation and the pandemic are felt immensely at the local level, where policies and procurements affect a resident’s daily access to services, infrastructure and public space. City staff sit at the frontlines of deciding how to best evaluate and regulate new technologies that are literally hitting the streets.

The smart city innovations of the last several decades have transformed the physical and legal landscape of cities and governments. With a persistent pandemic and emerging political discord that is felt by our people on our streets, cities must take their digital transformation seriously, using their levers to institutionalise equity and digital rights. Silicon Valley’s mantra “move fast and break things,” failed to acknowledge what comes after breaking systems. It’s now the charge of local governments and municipal staff to figure out how to “move smart and build things” that work for everyone. 


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