Reviewing UNESCO's Guidelines on Platform Regulation

Published on Mon Mar 06 2023Yash Budhwar -

UNESCO is creating guidelines for global digital platforms. They primarily aim to address the problems with content moderation that platforms encounter frequently, such as the rapid spread of false information and the inability of platforms to halt it. We present some thoughts on them here.

The final version of the Guidelines is slated to be released in mid-2023, with the intention that these will then ‘support regulators, governments, legislatures, and companies, dealing with content that potentially damages human rights and democracy while protecting freedom of expression and the availability of accurate and reliable information’.

The Guidelines while not legally binding can act as loopholes for governments to use them as justification for partisan actions on online public discourse. In many jurisdictions regulator independence is not a reality and state control of digital platforms is not ideal.

The guidelines contain ambiguous definitions and concepts that may be applied in a subjective, arbitrary, or constrictive way. For example, it states that the regulatory system should have the authority to "summon any digital platform deemed non-compliant with its own policies or failing to protect users."

Despite being open to multiple interpretations, regulatory actions cannot and should not be equated with firms' policies. These policies frequently impose speech restrictions that are much more severe than those allowed by international human rights legislation.

Another illustration is The Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC), which uses government-appointed individuals to decide appeals against social media platform content moderation judgments. The GAC is mentioned in India's IT Regulations 2021.

In addition to giving the government the authority to decide what speech is acceptable, this might "incentivize social media companies to suppress any content that may not be attractive to the government, public authorities, or others who can exert political pressure."

User reporting systems should prioritise "threatening" information, according to UNESCO. The report also suggests setting up automated complaint processing systems that are regularly evaluated by outside parties to handle the volume of complaints.

So, the subjective nature of words like "threatening" makes the immediate response by platforms vulnerable to abuse. Subjective biases and intentions may also inspire users. Automated systems frequently lack sophisticated analytical skills; as a result, they read intentions incorrectly and magnify unfair bias.

Competition and data protection aspects have not been taken into consideration by these Guidelines as well and, as such, any intended legal instrument or regulation will prove ineffective in limiting the harmful effects of the most significant online platforms’ business models.

The scope of the latest iteration of the Guidelines also includes messaging applications. A rule would gravely risk weakening E2EE and, by extension, protecting online freedom of speech and privacy if it applied the broadly worded responsibilities under the Guidelines to both messaging and hosting services.

Finally, the Guidelines make it clear that they are concentrating on the systems and procedures of platforms. Platforms "dealing" with unlawful content and "content that risks significant harm to democracy and the enjoyment of human rights" are given a lot of attention in the paper.

The document's conclusion defines the latter category as including "hate speech," "disinformation and misinformation," and "material that incites or depicts gender-based violence."

Each of these classifications lacks a clear legal meaning and cannot be used as a justification for online speech restrictions. For example, it is unjustifiable from the standpoint of human rights to argue that false information and illegal content should be treated equally.

Focusing on platforms' processes and decision-making capacities also takes away from a more citizen-first perspective and methodology to content moderation and places a lot of (unchecked) power in the hands of platforms.

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