Our comments on Draft 2.0 of the UNESCO Guidelines on Regulating Digital Platforms

We submitted our comments on draft 2.0 of the UNESCO Guidelines on Regulating Digital Platforms (“Guidelines”) on March 08, 2023. Having participated in the consultation for draft 1.1 of the Guidelines, we built upon our existing comments and inserted additional analysis.

13 March, 2023
4 min read

tl;dr

We submitted our comments on draft 2.0 of the UNESCO Guidelines on Regulating Digital Platforms (“Guidelines”) on March 08, 2023. Having participated in the consultation for draft 1.1 of the Guidelines, we built upon our existing comments and inserted additional analysis for specific changes in the new draft. Our broad comments relate to the need to ensure that risks to freedom of speech and expression as well as privacy as mitigated, avoided, and minimised to whatever extent possible, especially given the government laws, rules and regulations, and restrictions. Our specific comments relate to the challenges of establishing an independent regulatory system, ambiguity around certain terms and concepts, capacity limitations of academic institutions, civil society, regulatory systems and governments, etc.

Background

UNESCO released the 1st draft of the “Guidelines on Regulating Digital Platforms: a multistakeholder approach” (guidance document) with the aim of supporting freedom of expression and the availability of accurate and reliable information in the public sphere. Comments and inputs were invited on the guidance document till January 20, 2023. After analysing all the comments received, UNESCO released the 2nd draft of the Guidelines and invited feedback on it till March 08, 2023. This draft was discussed during the Internet for Trust conference on 22 and 23 February at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. The Guidelines focus on the structures and processes that digital platforms need to deal with content that is potentially damaging democracy and human rights.

Our comments

  1. Definitional ambiguity: We requested UNESCO to expand on its understanding and definition of “information as a public good” to acknowledge the complex local factors that affect its regulation. We also requested UNESCO to limit the use of the phrase “content that risks significant harm to democracy and the enjoyment of human rights”. In the absence of a globally agreed upon working definition, significant risk of its selective interpretation exists, sometimes even to the detriment of human rights. While the current draft has elaborated upon the types of “digital platform”, the definition still lacks nuance and could lead to overbroad application. We also emphasised the need for clearly defined goals for publishing information to ensure regulators don't misuse their power against digital platforms.
  2. Obligations on the regulatory system: Some of our concerns were alleviated by the introduction of new requirements on the regulatory system to identify the scope, size, reach, services provided, features (for-profit or non-profit), and management structure of the platforms. However, further clarity is needed on how such thresholds must be incorporated/ approached. We do appreciate that the regulatory system is, in the current draft, not expected to judge the appropriateness or legality of single pieces of content, and instead limited in focus on the systems and processes used by platforms.
  3. Obligations on the State: The obligation on the State to provide effective remedy for breaches of rights listed under Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a good new addition to the Guidelines. We are in agreement with the emphasis on the need for the State to refrain from disproportionate measures, particularly prior censorship and internet shutdowns, under the guise of combating disinformation or any other reason inconsistent with the ICCPR. We appreciate UNESCO’s position seeking to refrain the State from imposing a general monitoring obligation or a general obligation for digital platforms to take proactive measures relating to illegal content. The emphasis on not holding digital platforms liable when they act in good faith and with due diligence is also notable. UNESCO’s move abstaining the government from subjecting staff of digital platforms to criminal penalties is a positive retention in the current draft.
  4. Role of civil society, independent researchers, etc: Although we appreciate UNESCO’s acknowledgement of the role of researchers, the capacity and funding to undertake research may not be available in developing economies and least developed countries (“LDCs”) due to technical and economic challenges. While we are in agreement with UNESCO that media and fact-checking organisations have a role in promoting information as a public good, we reiterated that independence of such organisations must be maintained, protected, and upheld. We stressed that no unreasonable restrictions must be imposed on them, especially on the kind of information they can deal with, and how.
  5. Obligations on the digital platforms: We appreciated the inclusion of requirements for digital platforms to publish information on how personal data is used and treated to make algorithmic decisions for purposes of content moderation and curation to improve transparency. We also value the new obligation for digital platforms to publish information about political advertisements, including the author and individuals/parties involved in payment. This is seen as a step towards meaningful transparency, building upon the previous requirement to retain such information in a publicly accessible online library. The proposal by UNESCO to provide stable access, wherever safe and practicable, to non-personal and anonymized data on platforms has potential risks. The distinction between personal and non-personal data is unclear and can lead to implementation and legal issues. Given the significant threat of de-anonymisation, the risk of making this data public becomes high. We thus recommended holding further multi-stakeholder, broad based, public consultations and referred the report by the Working Group on Platform-to-Researcher Data Access established by the European Digital Media Observatory to UNESCO. With respect to the obligations imposed on digital platforms by UNESCO for the use of automated tools, we voiced our concerns with the existing challenges and limitations of automated systems. We also reiterated that without adequate safeguards, large-scale adoption of such technologies may result in overbroad censorship.

Important documents

  1. 2nd draft of the “Guidelines on Regulating Digital Platforms: a multistakeholder approach” (link)
  2. IFF’s comments on Draft 2.0 of the UNESCO guidelines on regulating digital platforms (link)
  3. IFF’s comments on Draft 1.1 of the UNESCO guidelines on regulating digital platforms (link)

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