Book Review: New Technologies for Human Rights Law and Practice

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

New Technologies for Human Rights Law and Practice. Edited by Molly K. Land & Jay D. Aronson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xiv, 318 p. Includes table of contents, bibliographical references, and index. ISBN 978-1-107-17963-9 (hardcover) $126.95; ISBN 978-1-316-63141-6 (softcover) $40.95. Open access (PDF) via doi.org/10.1017/9781316838952.

Reviewed by Katarina Daniels
Liaison Librarian
Nahum Gelber Law Library, McGill University
In CLLR 46:1

New Technologies for Human Rights Law and Practice is a brilliantly edited collection of essays that looks at both promising and problematic uses of technology in relation to human rights. It pursues the overarching goal of “articulat[ing] a human rights-based approach to understanding the impact of technological change on human rights” (p. 2). The diverse group of contributing authors includes law professors, practitioners, researchers, and technology specialists. These authors regularly refer to and rely on human rights law and accountability strategies in practice, as well as adopt ideas and concepts from cyberlaw and science and technology studies within the book. 

Despite the collection being a product of a workshop held at the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute in 2015, the observations, analyses, and themes discussed continue to remain relevant. The book does an excellent job at highlighting the effects of technology on all aspects of human rights, including its social, economic, and political aspects. The book covers diverse issues, such as the use of water meters and its impact on the right to water; environmental rights, particularly as it relates to climate change and the duty to share knowledge; the right to start a family; privacy rights, particularly in the context of the internet and social media growth; freedom of expression and freedom of association; and rules of warfare, with a focus on autonomous lethal weapons.

The collection is divided into 13 chapters. It begins with a general introductory chapter followed by 12 chapters containing essays written by contributing authors. These 12 chapters are organized into three parts: Normative Approaches to Technology and Human Rights; Technology and Human Rights Enforcement; and Beyond Public/Private: States, Companies, and Citizens. The editors of the book begin each of these parts with contextual descriptions of the chapters along with brief analyses of the themes and issues that link them. 

The book contains three overarching and overlapping themes. The first theme, present in nearly every chapter in the book, is the relationship between technology and power, and how this relationship affects human rights. While technology can be democratizing, its uneven distribution may be seen as a factor that exacerbates global inequality. Through this theme, the authors question how human rights law may be used to ensure the equal distribution of technological benefits. The second theme is the impact of technology on accountability. In this theme, the authors examine the use of technology as a tool to identify human rights abuses, as well as how technology complicates the apportionment of liability, particularly in the context of automated decision-making. The final theme focusses on the role of the private sector in technological innovation. Most technological innovation is posited to have originated from the private sector, which human rights law may not be able to directly target.

Throughout these three themes, the authors query how people may ensure that new technologies are created and used in ways that do not violate human rights. They question what type of regulation is suitable and how human rights law may ensure that individual states provide appropriate responses. Finally, the authors caution that the importance of political advocacy in human rights law should not be neglected. This is after having identified the risk resulting from people relying on technology as the principal solution to human rights abuses.

Throughout the book, the authors compel readers to consider what constitutes a human rights violation in the context of increasing automation and algorithmic decision-making. Many questions posed throughout the book remain unanswered, and identified issues remain unaddressed. For instance, one such issue cited in the book is the application of risk-assessment algorithms in bail hearings. The embedding of these seemingly neutrally designed technologies may continue to disadvantage marginalised groups. Despite this, the engineers, designers, or producers of these technologies experience minimal to no repercussions relating to the presence of these biases. Another unaddressed issue presented by the authors is the publication of misinformation over the internet and through social media. Although this type of published material remains extensive, little consequences are imposed on social media platforms, regardless of the harms resulting from the publication of the misinformation. One issue regarding technological documentation involves the use of satellite imaging to record human rights abuses against the Uighur people of Xinjiang, China. Despite the existence of documentation, little is being done to halt known atrocities. These manifestations serve as reminders to readers that technology is no replacement for advocacy.

Offering a balance of theoretical essays and practical case studies, this book is an important read for legal technologists as well as policy makers and jurists researching or practicing in human rights law. Consequently, it belongs on the shelves of various law libraries, including academic, courthouse, and government libraries. This book would also make a welcome addition to the personal bookshelves of human rights lawyers as well as the bookshelves of science, engineering, and computer science libraries.

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