As part of its mandate, UNESCO has launched a global dialogue to provide guidelines for regulating digital platforms, to fight disinformation and hate speech and protect freedom of expression and human rights. The high point will be an international conference organized at the Organization’s Paris headquarters on 21–23 February. This will result in the presentation by UNESCO, in mid-2023, of global guidelines for governments, regulatory bodies and digital companies.
A flawed business model
Social media and other digital platforms have empowered people all over the world to communicate, share information, and transform their societies. But increasingly, these platforms are also breeding grounds for disinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories. In recent years, the issue of monitoring and moderating content has been an important factor in violence, insurrection, marred elections and democratic transfers of power in scores of countries.
Studies show that engagement can often be prioritized at any cost. This leads to algorithms favoring the most controversial content, because it triggers the most reaction, in spite of the evidence that this content can damage the fabric of our societies, sowing distrust, helping to seed extremism, and undermining fundamental human rights. There appear to be vast imbalances between regions and languages, with moderation resources sometimes distributed on the basis of financial or political interests, or far too late, in response to public outrage once violence or election meddling has already occurred.
Global issues require global guidelines
Many countries are advancing regulation to respond to these issues, but this has so far been uncoordinated and fragmented, with some countries clearly not in line with international norms on freedom of expression. Given the global dominance of a limited number of players, the need for a consistent global approach has never been more pressing than right now.
As the United Nations agency for communication and information issues, UNESCO is leading global consultations on this topic, involving governments, regulatory bodies, digital companies, academia, civil society and UN agencies. This global dialogue will culminate in what is believed to be the first global conference specifically focused on guidance for the regulation of digital platforms, from 21 to 23 February 2023. Thousands of representatives from these groups are already registered to participate.
UNESCO experts will then incorporate the feedback received during these discussions and engage in new rounds of consultations aiming to finalize and publish the first global guidelines on the topic in mid-2023. They will be used by governments, regulators, digital companies and other groups to implement policies and tools as needed, with UNESCO’s expertise and support, while ensuring they are aligned to international human rights norms.
UNESCO’s initiative responds to the call from the UN Secretary General in “Our Common Agenda” to address the spread of disinformation and the denial of scientifically established facts, which pose “an existential risk to humanity”.
UNESCO’s mandate to provide guidelines for regulation
UNESCO has a global mandate, enshrined in its constitution, to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image. It leads UN action to promote freedom of expression and access to information. This includes a decades-long history of providing guidance to and promoting cooperation between broadcast regulators and press councils, including by advancing international standards.
The Windhoek+30 Declaration on Information as a Public Good in the Digital Age, endorsed by UNESCO’s 193 Member States in 2021, calls for increased transparency of technology companies, support for the long-term viability of news media and teaching citizens everywhere media and information literacy.
Under the leadership of its Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO is specifically working to improve the transparency of digital platforms, including through developing a series of principles for transparency and accountability in the digital age. UNESCO also established the first global standard on the ethics of artificial intelligence, adopted unanimously by its Member States in 2021, which includes a specific call for “appropriate frameworks, including regulation” to address these issues.
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