Why we need data rights: ‘Not everything about us should be for sale’

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The issues related to human rights in digital spaces are complex.Becky Guthrie/National Post

Canada has a rich history of innovation, but in the next few decades, powerful technological forces will transform the global economy. Large multinational companies have jumped out to a headstart in the race to succeed, and Canada runs the risk of falling behind. At stake is nothing less than our prosperity and economic well-being. The Financial Post set out explore what is needed for businesses to flourish and grow. You can find all of our coverage here.

Late last year, Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, a “joint initiative to promote and track progress in protecting residents’ and visitors’ digital rights in cities.”

What are digital rights? This coalition considers them a range of protections regarding access to the Internet, privacy, transparency regarding how data is used, control over how data is used, democratic participation in municipal technology decisions and more.

Viewed through this lens, Canada’s largest city wasn’t ready for the political mess that came with Google’s Sidewalk Toronto. People connected to the project, led by Waterfront Toronto, continue to recklessly opine that defining digital rights policy with house-on-fire urgency, created by a vendor relationship no less, is a good idea. It isn’t. The issues related to human rights in digital spaces are complex.

Digital rights protections are one way that residents, globally, are getting engaged in the design of the spaces they live in. Toronto needn’t go beyond its national borders for advice; Montreal is well down this track already. Basic protections and democratically informed policy are critical to put city governments and residents in the driver’s seat with tech companies. Through these policies, cities (and their long-term maintenance plans), are shaped by city and resident needs and wants, not corporate whims.

The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights “marks the first time that cities have come together to protect digital rights on a global level.” But the human rights issues related to how people’s data can be used, and is being used, are far from new. People, racialized people in particular, have been profiled and discriminated against through the use of data for centuries.

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