06 March 2020

A Need for New Legal Measures to Protect Human Rights Online?

Within the human rights circle, we often hear that the same rules and the same level of human rights protection should apply online as well as offline. This is a widely acknowledged rule, with the blessing of the UN Human Rights Council since 2012. Still, no one has delved into unfolding how the same rules can and should apply both online and offline given the impact of digital technologies on the people, the society and international human rights law. In her PhD thesis, Dr Ahreum Lee goes into the details of this aspect and focuses on the question of whether we need a new legal measure to protect our online rights. Interview.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Choosing my PhD research topic was like connecting the dots in my life – it seemed that my educational background and professional experiences were all pointing to this topic. I have a legal background with degrees in law and also a technical background with a master’s degree in computer science focused on e-business. So, I always had one leg in the technical world with the geeks and another leg in the legal world with the jurists. Having geeks and lawyers as friends led me to understand that the two worlds do not speak a common language. Additionally, I jumped from working in domain name dispute resolutions at WIPO to the Secretariat of the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) working on international electronic commerce law and then landed at the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR). These may seem unrelated but they are all connected with one aspect – how technology impacts how we live, how we interact with others and how the society changes. I wanted to work on research that shows how digital technologies converge all aspects of our lives and how this convergence impacts the protection of our rights online. 
How did you formulate your thesis question and what was your methodology?

The main question of this research is focused on whether we need a new set of norms or additional legal measures to protect our rights related to our activities online. What distinguishes my research from existing studies is that the methodology I used to unfold the research question originates from concepts and ideas found in the technical fields taking into account the attributes of the ICTs and the digital space. The first analytical framework, which I call “the life cycle of digital information”, is inspired from “use case”, a concept used in computer science when programmers design and prepare a blueprint of a complex IT system (including the actors, the flow of information, actions taken to reach a goal) before coding. The second framework, referred to as “digital information ecosystem”, is derived from the definition of ecosystem, which refers to any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts. (For example, iPhone depends on hardware – the phone itself – and software that runs on Apple products – iMovie, Apple Music, Siri, etc. The hardware and software and its users constitute the ecosystem of Apple’s iPhone.) I believe that these frameworks will develop in parallel to the evolution of ICTs and not become outdated, as they are scalable; namely, the frameworks can address new issues and can be enlarged to accommodate the growth of the problems.

What are your major findings?

The answer to my research question is that we don’t need a new piece of legislation or treaty to realise our rights online. The international human rights law was written in a way so that it can be dynamically interpreted and adapted. What has to be done more is for those who implement and enforce human rights law to understand that human rights need to be interpreted in the context of the digital space. We also need to address the gaps and concerns when it comes to the role and responsibility of non-state actors in the digital space, particularly, the power and control that they exercise over the flow of digital information. What I found and emphasised is that the digital space is evolving and it is not waiting for the law or lawyers to catch up to its speed of development. What is also clear is that the role of international human rights law is to proactively guide the digital industry so that the respective functions, actions and decisions of each actor do not impede or limit our rights. To fulfil this role, we need to move beyond traditional legal doctrines and interpretations applicable to the 19th century and embrace the digital space to understand how the market and the behaviours of individuals drive the law.

What are your projects now?

Given that my research is on human rights online, I found that going for a publication of a book in the atomic form is somewhat ironic. Also, all the examples that I used will be outdated if ever it is published – as I illustrated in my research, the digital world outpaces the law and the law together with printed materials become obsolete. I also believe in the spirit of open source and open content. Therefore, I plan to make my research available through the Internet. I recently purchased two domain names, and, and will be working on those webpages in the near future to present my PhD thesis in various formats, making it widely available for all.

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Ahreum Lee defended her PhD thesis in International Law in October 2019. Professor Nico Krisch presided the committee, which included Professor Andrew Clapham, thesis director, and Professor Andrew Murray, Department of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Lee, Ahreum. “International Human Rights Law in Digital Space: An Examination of the Need for New Legal Measures for the Protection of Rights Online.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Lee’s PhD thesis via this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by DODOMO/