Human Rights and Technology

On 14 April 2020 DGI provided our submission as part of the AHRC Human Rights and Technology consultations.

In 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission provided a final report.

A summary of the Commission’s final report

The Australian Human Rights Commission (referred to as the AHRC) in March 2021 released the Human Rights and Technology Final Report (referred to the AHRC Final Report). This report represents the final findings of a three-year project conducted by the AHRC into the interaction between emerging technologies and their impacts on our human rights. The report was tabled in Parliament by the Attorney-General on 27 May 2021.

DGI is pleased to have been involved throughout this process and is also pleased that the project was incredibly collaborative and responsive to the concerns of people with disabilities. This is highlighted by DGI’s submission to the AHRC Final Report being quoted six times, a testament to DGI’s work to date as well as the importance that the AHRC has placed on the issue of technology accessibility.

DGI recognizes that while the AHRC Final Report is a thoughtful piece and introduces many positive recommendations, it is crucial we continue to take meaningful action. The importance of technology is growing rapidly – this is brought to life during Australia’s COVID-19 experience, where we all have had to rely on technology for work, interacting with government services and receiving news and information in a timely manner.

DGI will continue to be engaged with the AHRC on this project. A summary of the AHRC Final Report’s discussion around accessibility is provided below. The AHRC’s Human Rights and Technology web page, which includes the AHRC Final Report, prior discussions and submissions (including DGI’s submissions).

Key takeaways

The AHRC Final Report makes 38 recommendations across four parts. These four parts are:

  • A national strategy on new and emerging technologies;
  • Artificial intelligence (referred to as AI);
  • Supporting effective regulation; and
  • Accessible technology.

DGI provided meaningful input into each of these parts, including various submissions and attending community roundtables to highlight the lived experiences of those with disabilities. Sean Murphy, former director of DGI, was also a member of the expert reference group representing the disability community, as the Accessibility Subject Matter Expert.

One of the most important recommendations is to introduce the Digital Australia Strategy which “sets out a vision for responsible innovation” (AHRC Final Report, page 11). This is demonstrated by the AHRC’s recommendation that laws should be introduced to regulate and provide transparency over AI-informed decision-making in both the public and private spheres. To regulate and promote this, establishing an AI Safety Commissioner as an independent statutory body is recommended.

Encouragingly, technology accessibility was covered in significant detail by the AHRC Final Report. As part of the general approach to improving technology regulation and creating enforceable standards and laws, it was recommended that the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (referred to as the DDA) should be amended to introduce a ‘Digital Communication Technology Standard’ which targets the accessibility of technologies and provides a legal platform for enforcement. Similarly, the AHRC recommends changes to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) to ensure accessibility of commercial television and social media content. This includes minimum audio-described content and captioning.

Finally, a large emphasis was placed on ensuring technology is designed and executed in an accessible manner from the outset. It was recommended that the Disability Reform Council (a federal forum to discuss disability policy), and industry broadly, should adopt and promote a ‘human rights by design’ in the development and delivery of technology, and should invest in education and training of accessible technology design.

DGI has provided a more fulsome analysis of the AHRC Final Report’s discussion of technology and accessibility.

The approach to accessibility

The AHRC Final Report acknowledges that technology is an enabling right, “enabling people with disabilities to enjoy greater independence and participation in all areas of life”. Conversely, when inaccessible, technology can present “barriers to the most fundamental human rights, including to education, employment and health”.

Importantly, access to technology is ingrained in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Australia is a signatory. It is with this context that the AHRC Final Paper discusses various issues associated with accessibility, including functional accessibility, broadcasting and audio-visual services, availability of technology and design and education.

Functional accessibility and availability of new technology

DGI is acutely aware that functional accessibility (whether a good or service can accommodate the needs of a person’s disability) in practice is not currently being achieved across the board. The challenge of entering a PIN in a touchscreen EFTPOS terminal or ATMs is an example of functional accessibility DGI has addressed in its work.

Under our current legal framework, there are no standards for ensuring functional accessibility, and current protections under the DDA, Australia’s key legislation for preventing discrimination on the grounds of disability. For instance, under the DDA, only a person who is affected by a breach of disability can seek a remedy under the DDA and as such, there is no independent body to monitor or enforce the DDA. It is recognized this presents an undue burden on individuals to bring action, in terms of time and resources.

The preferred approach under the DDA involves conciliation between an aggrieved party under the DDA and the provider of the relevant good or service which is in breach of the DDA. However, resolutions via conciliation do not provide systematic change but instead only target individuals bringing a complaint under the DDA, and do not create any legal precedent for the industry to follow. The need to advocate for systemic legal and policy reforms in this area was a fundamental driver in the foundation of DGI.

To alleviate some of these concerns, the AHRC Final Report recommends a new standard created under the DDA, as well as additional law and policy reforms, to address Digital Communication Technology. This is a very welcome recommendation and will provide some comfort that specific measures are in place that are enforceable rather than being purely voluntary.

In addition, the AHRC Final Report stress that technology should also be available for people with disability. Issues may arise where people with disability cannot afford or are not aware of goods or services that are functionally available. It is pleasing that this aspect of accessibility is also addressed by the AHRC. To address this, the AHRC has recommended than standard be created (in collaboration with the industry and community) to ensure that information about goods and services that use technology (such as information on functional accessibility, and instructions in an accessible format) is provided.

Broadcast and audio-visual services

In recent years, content is increasingly being communicated through a range of digital broadcasting channels – this includes, free-to-air and subscription television (via streaming) as well as online platforms such as social media. In our experience this has not been matched with suitable accessibility options such as captioning and audio-descriptions. This is especially alarming considering the transition of key services (such as government services), as well as emergency public announcements, to digital communication channels.

The AHRC has recommended that there be an increase in audio-description and captioning for content across a range of digital communication channels and to increase the monitoring of compliance with such accessibility requirements. This is recommended to be achieved via amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth).

The AHRC Final Report is strong in its recommendation of adopting a “human rights by design” approach when designing and developing technology. Per the AHRC Final Report:

A ‘human rights by design’ approach involves considering the human rights implications of what one is creating at the earliest stages of design and development, and taking steps to uphold the rights of end users and others who may be affected.

In DGI’s view, this is essential to ensuring that the human rights of people with disabilities is considered and protected for current and emerging technologies. DGI submitted, and the AHRC acknowledged, that presently accessibility is added on towards the end of the product cycle to meet legislated requirements, rather than considered holistically as part of the design process. Encouraging accessible design should be prioritized as this provides a social benefit for people with disability to participate in society, as well as an economic benefit for companies to reach a broader market.

The AHRC Final Report adopts various recommendations of DGI. This includes, for example, an inquiry into compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1, including considering whether incentives for compliance should be provided (such as tax benefits and research grants). The AHRC Final Report also recommends leading a process to adopt and promote the “human rights by design” philosophy in the development and delivery of technology-driven goods and services by federal and state governments.

Similarly, “human rights by design” principles should be included in education (including for students of science, technology, engineering and math subjects) and should form a part of ongoing professional

DGI is looking forward to working with the AHRC and relevant stakeholders (including all levels of government and the private sector) to build upon the recommendations of the AHRC Final Report. DGI specifically looks forward to engaging proactively and constructively with relevant parties and will continue to strive for open and meaningful dialogue. DGI has provided meaningful advice since the AHRC Final Report was tabled, including input into PwC’s consultation on the ‘Skills for Australia – ICT Training Project’.

Let us know what you think of the AHRC Final Report. Please reach out to DGI if you have any questions on the report and specific recommendations.