Human Rights in the Digital Era

Right to an Online Identity

Paul Bernal (UEA/LSE) explores the connection between the right to forget and the right to an online identity.

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“A Right to an Online Identity?” – Paul Bernal, University of East Anglia/ LSE

This paper will address the proposition that if people have a right to internet access then that they should have a right to an online identity. If online life is now an intrinsic component of modern life, then to function fully in modern life an individual needs to be able to assert an online identity, as a recognised online identity is already important for much of what happens online. There are times and places both offline and online when the assertion (and certification) of identity can be required, and others where it can be of significant help – where finance is concerned, for example, or when dealing with e-Government. In the real world, the right to identity has already begun to take legal forms. The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child includes a right to identity while the European Court of Human Rights appears to have derived such a right from Article 8 of the ECHR. This leads to the suggestion of a right to an online identity. This would include the rights to create, assert and protect that identity – and to control the links between the online identity and the real identity behind it. There are close connections between privacy and identity: key aspects of privacy can be viewed as protection of identity. Viewing online privacy from the perspective of a right to an online identity can suggest ways forward in establishing a more privacy-friendly internet for the future. Further to this, the proposed ‘right to be forgotten’ can also be seen as following directly from a right to an online identity – protecting and controlling an online identity would include rights over the data associated with that online identity. Another key aspect considered in the paper is the question of anonymity. Anonymity can be seen as a converse to identity – an absence of identity – and just as there are times and places where identity is required, there may be times and places where anonymity is required and should be guaranteed: a limited ‘right to anonymity’ in certain circumstances. Surrounding the idea of a right to identity are complications such as multiple online identities, shared online identities and pseudonymity. These make the establishment of a right to an online identity complex, but emphasise the importance of giving it proper consideration

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