The Dilemma of Localising Digital Human Rights

Development dilemma of a global platform

Facebook is a global platform. Every day, countless users connect with family and friends, share interesting facts about their lives and express their opinions on Facebook. content on Facebook reflects the diversity of the more than 1 billion Facebook users, discussing topics ranging from pets to politics. face the challenges of cultural differences around the world.

Facebook publishes a set of community standards. It is clear what is allowed and what is not. At the same time, Facebook will go so far as to restrict access to specific content to users in that area based on local laws and regulations or local government requirements, even if it doesn’t violate the community standards. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily removal, but rather restriction of access (some content will be removed, depending on the content), and Facebook will also determine whether specific content needs to be removed based on the content reported by users (Facebook, 2015).

Even so, managing a globalised platform is a huge challenge, and it could even be argued that Facebook’s governance is in trouble. According to Facebook, the amount of content that is restricted or reported has exploded in recent years. People seem to be more easily offended or made uncomfortable by more and more content. Facebook, one of the most famous global digital platforms, seems to be encountering what could be called a paradoxical challenge. The set of management standards, which are very much in line with Western concepts of human rights, do not seem to work well in reality. Globalisation? Localisation? Facebook faces a huge dilemma.

Looking back – three generations of human rights

Let us begin by sorting out the historical sources. In the contemporary cultural context, human rights remain an important and effective tool for social change. Powers such as “freedom of speech”, “freedom of the press”, etc. are often associated with the core of Western thought, which emphasises the supremacy of individual power or a liberalism that is essentially individualistic and treats the individual as the basic unit of value rather than the collective (e.g. the people). Thus, in the Western cultural context, it is difficult to imagine another entity taking the place of the individual for primacy (Jan, 2017). These civil and political powers are known as the first generation of human rights, which took shape during the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, and were dedicated to the protection of individual power from the state. The second generation of human rights refers mainly to economic, social and cultural rights, and is based on the theory of social welfare, which prioritises the collective good (Qiu, 2017). The second generation of human rights emphasises equality, where different members of the citizenry have access to equal conditions and opportunities, as well as guaranteeing the right to freedom and political rights of the individual. In the early days, the second-generation human rights were not fulfilled in the western countries because the control of capitalism did not allow the citizens to have such rights. The third generation emerged with the anti-colonial revolution of national self-determination and non-discrimination (Boli & Elliott, 2008, as cited in Jan, 2017). The theory is based on social connectivism with a predominantly national interest. The power it seeks is not limited to the individual rights of citizens, but emphasises the right to development and survival of developing countries and the role of the state in the world. While each generation has added new perspectives and complexities, they all remain grounded in Western individualism.

As we can see, the development of human rights originated in Western societies, with the right to freedom as the basic human right. However, in the course of the world’s turbulent development, influenced by the socialist revolutions, the concept of the “collective” was gradually absorbed, and the development of human rights in this case is more like a fusion in the process of confrontation. Individualism or collectivism? It seems that you cannot have it both ways.

Fourth-generation human rights

The big data and intelligence revolution has a profound impact on human society, and while it brings many conveniences to people’s lives, it also brings serious risks and challenges to human society. The collection, storage, analysis and use of personal data will inevitably have an impact on specific individuals (Cheng, 2018). “Digital human rights” refers to the basic rights and freedoms that people enjoy in the digital space, including the right to privacy, to expression, to information, and to participation. These rights are the embodiment of universal human values and dignity, as well as the civil rights in the digital era. Some scholars have suggested that the right to personal data and personal information is not just a right, but also a basic human right, and that “digital human rights” are the fourth generation of human rights. However, this is still a controversial topic, some scholars (Liu, 2021) think that digital human rights still belong to the third generation of human rights, and is not enough to independently become the fourth generation of human rights.

Differences between East and West: the right of privacy as an example

The East and the West have different perceptions of why natural persons should be granted civil rights to personal data (data that includes private information, etc.). There are differences not only between East and West, but also between Europe and the US. The reasons are manifold. In Europe, the focus is on protecting the right to respect and dignity of the individual. Privacy is often threatened by the media, which may disseminate distasteful information in ways that jeopardise public dignity. However, this concern extends beyond media exposure, as any agent that collects and disseminates information may pose similar dangers. In contrast, the United States places a greater emphasis on the values of liberty, particularly in relation to state control. The concept of the right to privacy in the US is rooted in eighteenth-century principles, specifically the right to be free from state intrusion, particularly within one’s own home. Consequently, Americans are less concerned about media scrutiny. Instead, individuals often worry about maintaining their own private sovereignty within their own homes (Whitman, 2004, as cited in Cheng, 2018), such as Castle Law. However, both systems share the same cultural spirit.

On the one hand, cultural diversity has an underlying unity, as defined by a global code of ethics. It provides a minimum standard to which any community should adhere. Universalism is a fundamental principle of global ethics. The spirit of universal human rights proclaims that all human beings are born equal and enjoy these rights regardless of class, gender, or race (World Commission on Culture and Development, 1995). On the other hand, this Western, individualistic conception of human rights is excessively infringing on other culturally specific conceptions of human rights. Although the United States proudly regards itself as the main symbol and advocate of peace, democracy and human rights in the world, its actual national strategies and military activities over the past decades have made people all over the world wonder whether the “freedom” of the United States is the freedom of the Americans or the freedom of the whole world. We see how U.S. policy is determined by the corporate sector, which is closely tied to the state, and which makes decisions based on self-interest – the polar opposite of the rhetoric of democracy and human rights (Kaplowitz, 2003; Mitchell & Schoeffel, 2002; Zinn, 2005, as cited in Jan Servas, 2017).

In the East, especially in China and countries influenced by traditional Chinese culture, there is a cultural history of collectivism, and it can even be said that collectivism is one of the cores of Chinese values. In traditional Chinese culture, attachment and obedience to the family are emphasised, so that the Chinese have a strong sense of family and kinship. Between the individual and the collective, it is manifested in the fact that the collective interest is the main concern in times of need, and sometimes the individual’s interest is sacrificed for the maximisation of the collective interest. In today’s Chinese society, people have a strong sense of belonging to the collective for another reason: socialist ideas such as Marxism and Leninism have become the guiding ideology of the Chinese government. “Since the interest properly understood is the basis of the whole of morality, it is necessary to conform the private interests of the individual to the interests of all mankind.”, “Individual freedom is possible only in the collective” (Marx/Engels Collected Works, 1975). In fact, there is no word in traditional Chinese culture that can be accurately translated as “privacy”. The word “privacy” means freedom from interference by others, freedom from the public eyes, which does not exist in traditional Chinese culture. Contemporary China has been gradually influenced by the constant exchanges with other cultures around the world, but with a strong regional dimension.

Cultural freedom differs from other forms of freedom in several ways. Firstly, while most freedoms pertain to individuals, cultural freedom is a collective freedom that enables individual freedom to thrive. Secondly, cultural freedom, when properly understood, safeguards not only the collective but also the rights of each individual within it. Finally, freedom is central to culture, particularly the freedom to determine what we are justified in valuing and pursuing in life. “One of the most basic needs is the freedom to define our own basic needs” (De Cuéllar 1995, as cited in Jan, 2017). Thus, “to best serve humanity, universal human rights must come down to earth ” and “we better go local” (Thomson Ford, 2011, as cited in Jan, 2017).

Let’s go back to Facebook.

There are several possible problems with Facebook’s global governance. Firstly, it is still up to Facebook to make the decision to remove relevant content that will still be criticised by another cultural context. In other words, most of Facebook’s content regulators are still in a Western cultural context, and they are going to use their worldview and values to judge what content people in various parts of the world will be interested in seeing and able to see. This cultural difference can be reflected in life. For example, in the East, there is a higher tolerance for surveillance because the concept of privacy is not in the history and culture. As a result, there is significantly more surveillance in the relatively more developed countries of Southeast Asia, such as China and Japan, than in the West. And the West vilifies this as the “Big Brother” model of heavy-handed control. This also includes differences in language, such as what is “nudity”. People from all over the world will understand it differently and accept it differently. While Facebook talks to governments, community members, academics and other experts from all over the world, they do acknowledge in their report that their policies won’t address every piece of content perfectly, especially in limited contexts (Facebook, 2015). Facebook’s achievements in content regulation algorithms are notable in that they focus on banning the posting of hate speech, violent speech, and other explicitly anti-social and anti-human content. However, there is also a large portion of content that contains uncomfortable content that is implicit, or that he is justified in the Western context, but is considered offensive in some specific cultures. For example, profanity is not considered against the rules in the regular Facebook community, but profanity is considered inappropriate in certain countries (Facebook, 2015). Secondly, regulatory review is characterised by delays and lags. The algorithm is not omniscient, and after it removes a large amount of obviously illegal content, it still relies on user reports and manual review, which is certainly a long and complicated process compared to the speed at which information travels, especially when there is a cultural divide.

Write to the end

Personally, I believe that the best way for digital platforms is undoubtedly localised monitoring and management, which is more accurate, more compatible and faster. However, it is important to note that localisation is not the same as refusing to communicate globally, and that countries and civilisations are not isolated entities, but are influenced by neighbouring cultures. Our basic principle should be “to cultivate respect for all cultures with tolerant values”. Respect extends beyond tolerance and involves having a positive attitude towards others and an appreciation for their culture. Social harmony is crucial for human progress, and this necessitates that cultural differences are not viewed as foreign, unacceptable, or repulsive, but rather as opportunities for shared experiences that offer valuable lessons and insights for all (De Cuéllar 1996, as cited in Jan, 2017).

Reference List

Cheng, X. (2018). Personal Data Rights in the Era of Big Data, (03), 102–122.

Facebook. (2019, November 7). Explaining our community standards and approach to government requests. Meta.

Facebook. (n.d.). Content restrictions based on local law. Transparency Center.

LIU, Z. (2021). Digital Human Rights” Do Not Constitute the Fourth Generation of Human Rights. Chinese Journal of Law, (01), 20–34.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). Collected works. Lawrence and Wishart.

Qiu, B. (2017). On the intergenerational division of human rights. Journal of Liaoning University(Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition), (03), 98–104.

Servaes, J. (2017). All human rights are local. The Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights, 136–146.

World Commission on Culture and Development. (1998). Our creative diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development. Unesco Pub.

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