About the project

At a time when digital technologies are increasingly redefining aspects of our personal, professional and political lives, the Digital Rights and Governance project based at the University of Sydney explores urgent questions about the nature of our rights and responsibilities when it comes to digital platforms, and the best models for governance.

Funded by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Research Excellence Initiative (SREI), the project brings together a research team of experts in digital humanities, social science and law, to understand the implications of this ‘digital disruption’.

The Digital Rights Challenge

The world is experiencing a fundamental transformation in the way people work, play and participate in political life. Digital platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, WeChat and Twitter, Airtasker, and Uber are now just as central as traditional institutions to how we organize our professional and social lives. These platforms are also disrupting the ways we engage in public debate and mobilize political action, in advanced industrial societies, as well as the authoritarian states and emerging democracies of Australia and its Asian region.

Such digital disruption has consequences for individuals’ capacity to engage with their world, to connect with communities of interest, and to interrogate news and ideas. On the positive side, we now have access to new channels of information and interaction that are more difficult for governments or many corporations to control. Conversely, individuals—and governments— have little say over the scope of data collection or individuals’ access to services, content management or speech standards, intellectual property or consumer rights on these platforms. And it is not clear how citizens or public bodies will have effective input into the development of private platforms, run by private entities, with often opaque decision-making processes, behavioural analytics and identity pro ling and data on-selling.

What is the impact of digital disruption in our region on organisation of work, social, and political life? How are activists and ordinary people in different countries using digital platforms, to what effect, and with what challenges? How successful are governments’ attempts to regulate privately owned platform operation and use? What models exist for public-private governance?

In the face of these pressing questions about how we can shape and implement digital technologies, issues of rights and governance are now a political priority. So gaining a better understanding of digital rights —mapping the rights we think we have and those we might hope for—is an urgent matter. This project is a contribution to this important societal challenge.

Objectives

Taking an empirical and regionally focused approach, the overall aims of the project are to:

assess the evolving citizen uses of digital platforms, and associated digital rights and responsibilities in Australia and Asia, identifying key dynamics and issues of voice, participation, marginalisation and exclusion;

develop a framework for establishing rights and legitimate expectations which platform stakeholders––particularly everyday users––should enjoy and responsibilities they may bear; and

identify the best models for governance arrangements for digital platforms and for ‘activating’ digital platforms as social resources in different domains.

Key themes

The project focuses on the three key research themes of information access, work and speech:

Information

Questions around privacy and government and commercial monitoring of online (and historically offline) activity are the subject of strong contestation and a range of views among industry and government, individuals, and online actors. We are examining attitudes towards privacy in the online environment; how people navigate the shifting boundaries between what is considered private, and what is considered public, and how people view the development of more fine-grained targeting, or tailoring, of content.

Work

Digital platforms are central to both the reorganization of work and how we work every day, even perhaps removing the boundaries between private and work life, and giving employers new (and contested) powers to monitor and respond to employee behaviour. We examine how attitudes meet regulation in the context of employer interaction with private social media activity. More broadly, we are examining implications of new digitally-supported work platforms through the prism of regulation, inclusion and rights; and analysing new forms of online civil society organising that attempt to regulate these new forms of work.

Speech

Social media and networking platforms are said to be free speech environments, offering voice for all and increased media diversity. Yet hate speech, doxxing and other forms of incivility are diminishing public participation online. We explore policy and educational responses to these conflicts, including the future of speech regulation by, and in, government, business and schools – domains where visibility, identity and reputational issues are difficult to manage.

Research Design

The first phase of the project (2017) develops empirical case studies with two complementary elements to the investigation: a social science-oriented, ‘bottom-up’ research into user attitudes (via a survey); and a legally-oriented examination of ‘top down’ regulation and policies.

In mid 2017, we worked with Essential Media to survey a representative group of 1600 Australians on their attitudes to these three key areas – information rights, work and speech. We also conducted an online discussion group to collect attitudes to real world digital rights scenarios. Preliminary data analysis can be found on our Research page, and a final report will be released later in the year.

If we are successful with obtaining funding for years 2-3 of the project, we will seek collaborations with regional partners to extend the work in a comparative way, and to start developing a picture of how attitudes both ‘ground up’ and ‘top down’ vary regionally.