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Data and genetic privacy join proposed privileges for nonhumans, robots, and nature

The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights

William F. Schulz and Sushma Raman
Harvard University Press
328 pp.
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The Coming Good Society offers a cursory overview of the state of human rights in an age of emerging technologies. More accessible narrative than academic treatise, this enjoyable read examines how changing norms create opportunities to expand the scope of universal protections and rights. Authors William F. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, and Sushma Raman, executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, look to their own experiences and extensive professional encounters to support their arguments in the book’s eight short but substantive chapters.

Rights reflect our consensus of what is or ought to be in a good society. As such, human rights are in constant flux, evolving and sometimes devolving as social and political norms change, societies adapt, and discoveries and advancing technologies change worldviews. Rights are also transactional claims that create duties and obligations of the powerful to the less powerful. They promote civility, deter oppression, and provide a sense of dignity to groups within these penumbras.

In the book’s third chapter, Schulz and Raman consider new rights to which they believe we are all entitled, in the form of improved privacy protections. They ground these rights in ideals of autonomy and control, as corporations seek to learn more about us and to use that information to manipulate our behavior. The authors propose the widespread implementation of rights already granted—recently and prominently—to Europeans through the General Data Protection Regulation. These include the right to be forgotten (i.e., the right to have negative personal data erased from internet search results). Schulz and Raman also advocate using algorithm transparency requirements to limit the biases that are often unintentionally encoded into those algorithms, which reflect the “presumptions and predilections of their makers.”

The authors continue their discussion of emerging privacy concerns in the book’s fourth chapter, which examines how privacy should be accorded to our genetic information. Here, they address the ownership of DNA, the rights of parents and children in reproductive scenarios involving genetic engineering, and the challenges presented by animal-human chimeras. Science-literate readers might find this chapter a bit underwhelming, as it is written to be accessible to a broad audience.

The book’s fifth chapter suggests that rights could be employed to protect vulnerable groups suffering under corrupt leadership, which, while generally illegal, is frequently tolerated, often at the expense of the poor and powerless. Notably, the authors argue for a right to be free from corruption rather than the right to good governance, as they see corruption as much broader than an abuse of authority. They include, for example, financial rules that intensify the unfair distribution of wealth.

A recurring theme in the book is that of competing rights. For example, some advocates have proposed that same-sex couples should be guaranteed the right to access surrogacy services, but such a right could challenge the rights and autonomy of surrogate mothers, an often-oppressed group who are potential victims of trafficking and exploitation. Schulz and Raman also describe antagonistic interactions between competing rights groups, for example, between some women’s rights advocates and groups promoting the rights of nonbinary individuals. The authors suggest that “the inclusion of newly established rights need not vitiate the old.”

The book closes with a discussion of the possible extension of human rights to nonhumans, including animals, robots, and nature. These chapters provide an excellent overview of current discussions but offer little in the way of novel and provocative rights. Here also, the authors are forced to make distinctions between those animals, robots, and natural resources that ought to be granted rights and those that should not, owing to conflicting needs and demands. Such distinctions are sometimes rational, as in the case of the rights of obligate carnivores over their prey, and at other times seemingly arbitrary, as when Schulz and Raman suggest valuing the survival of native species over invasive ones that were introduced to a habitat through no fault of their own. One is left wondering whether these proposed divisions will one day seem as problematic and discriminatory as others the authors argue against elsewhere in the book.

About the author

The reviewer is at Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, Herzliya, Israel, and the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.