A landmark report by a UN human rights expert warns that governments and companies risk undermining free speech on the internet.
It urges both public officials and private authorities to address problems such as online hate speech and disinformation.
“Governments have a responsibility to ensure compliance with national and international law, but they must act now to ensure that the ability of internet platforms to provide space for freedom of expression is not undermined,” said UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye.
Unfortunately, he said, governments are moving in the wrong direction and often pose direct threats to online freedom of expression, according a statement received from Geneva on Tuesday.
“The worst threats include the criminalising of online criticism of government, religion or other public institutions. Other rules make companies responsible, at the risk of steep financial penalties, to assess what is illegal online, without the kind of public accountability that such decisions require,” said Kaye.
The expert says governments should move away from such ‘viewpoint regulation’ and focus their regulatory efforts, if any, on company incentives to disclose information about the enforcement of their rules.
Kaye suggested instead that governments should reinforce the role of public authorities, especially the courts, in determining the lawfulness of content, and that States should disclose much more than they do currently about their own demands for companies to remove content.
The report also provides an unprecedented examination of how internet companies regulate online content, and calls for company standards rooted in human rights law, and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
“Internet companies provide unprecedented space for communication and access to information, but they are also the global speech regulators of our time,” the Special Rapporteur noted.
“Governments and individual users deserve to know not just the rules in effect but also how and why those rules are adopted and enforced, and what forms of remedy and accountability exist when companies get it wrong,” Kaye stressed.
The report called for companies to undertake radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of their operations, from rule-making to implementation and for the development of “case law” framing the interpretation of private guidelines.
It also called for public accountability, including third-party monitoring of human rights compliance.
“States are required to ensure that their policies toward online expression sustain enabling environments for freedom of expression. The same applies to social media companies, which should incorporate relevant principles of human rights law into content-moderation standards,” he emphasised.