Interview with Dafna Dror-Shpoliansky

In a few words, can you tell us about yourself and how you found your way to the academic field? 
I am a Ph.D student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting Ph.D student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. Over the past six years I’ve worked as legal counsel at the Office of the Deputy Attorney General of Israel (International Law Department - Human Rights Division). My research field is Cyberlaw and international human rights law.
As a civil servant at the MOJ, my work focused on existing Israeli and international law, in a strive to design new laws and policies which accord with international human rights law. The digital sphere, on the other hand, imposes new questions and challenges that force to develop novel legal and ethical standards that the law haven't provide an answer to yet. It developed the curiosity to further explore these subjects and motivated me to open a new chapter in my career. I think that the academic field provides new opportunities for creative thinking, which is required not only for technology to develop but also for law and policy to develop alongside it. Finding the delicate balance of stimulating the technology’s growth while ensuring that tools and measures exist to protect and enhance human rights within the digital sphere is a highly important mission in the age of 'digitalization'.

What is the main core of your research? Can you give an example or two? How is it related to cyber security?
My doctoral thesis examines how international human rights law needs to develop in order to effectively protect human rights in the digital age. In particular, it seeks to explore whether a new human rights paradigm is needed for an effective protection of individual needs and interests in the online sphere. Recognizing new human rights, digital human rights, that are designed to apply online and accommodate the unique features of cyberspace is one possible part of it, and cyber security could be an essential human right in this regard.

Why did you choose this area over all others? Did your personal or professional background lead you to it? 
Though generally there is an acknowledgment within the international community that 'The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online', there is still a way to go in implementing this notion. It therefore raises a question on whether familiar, 'offline', models and mechanisms for protecting and promoting human rights can work sufficiently in the digital sphere. I think that my practical experience in international law, as a civil servant specializing in human rights, allows me unique insight to both perspectives on this issue. On one hand, allowing technology to thrive, for example allowing governments and enforcement systems to use advanced technological tools for their goals, and on the other hand making sure that once a technological tool or mechanism is created – the required safeguards and balances to the protection of human rights are available as well.

Do you think that in this cyber age these issues are even more complex compared to other times in history? If so – in what ways?
Most definitely. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented our physical contact and forced us to quickly transform to digital platforms in many important areas of our life. This reality highlighted the importance of enabling a safe and equitable "digital life" for all. We live in a world with huge digital divides, where almost half of the world population is not connected to internet. That digital divide exists not only between different regions but also between different demographics in the same state, deepens inequalities that already exist. In today's world where everything is digital, and especially against the backdrop of the pandemic, it is clear that Internet access cannot be considered a peripheral or privileged right anymore, but rather a fundamental value, an essential platform that enables to realize other rights. There is also an urgent need to invest in digital orientation and access in its broader sense - for example for the elderly population. A right to Internet access is only one example but there is an increasing need to develop specific norms and mechanisms to assure effective protection of human rights online.

After explaining the main core of your research, what do you think is the solution? What is the proper model for that? Is it applicable?
I think that maintaining human rights policy in cyber-space is a complicated issue for several reasons: non-state, private actors play a crucial role in this arena, the internet is global and departs from a classic perception of sovereignty, and of course its rapid and ubiquitous nature. It demands of us innovative and creative thinking on the one hand, but not to neglect the existing and well-established human rights system on the other hand. We therefore need to find innovative and adaptable models to effectively protect and promote human rights online. This is a core question that I intend to explore in the framework of my Ph.D research. One solution, as Prof. Shany and I have elaborated in our paper on Digital Human Rights, is creating new digital rights, which are designed and adapted to the unique features of the digital sphere.

What is the next phase in your professional life?
I recently made a big shift in my career, moving from a practicing lawyer at the MOJ to being a PhD student while relocating to Toronto with my family to commence an international visiting scholars program at the University of Toronto. So I think that for the coming couple of years I will stay put in the PhD course and continue research. In the future, I hope to use my hybrid academic and practical experience in a position that would integrate human rights standards in private-sector technology companies.

What is your message to the public? 
Human rights and technology can go hand in hand. Applying human rights standards to cyberspace does not mean stopping technology from advancing and developing. On the contrary; technology can enhance the human rights and well-being of all people. And the sooner human rights standards and appropriate analytical frameworks are incorporated into different technological tools and systems – the better.