Paper by Rebecca MacKinnon: : “…divided into three sections. The first section discusses the relevance of international human rights standards to U.S. internet platforms and universities. The second section identifies three common challenges to universities and internet platforms, with clear policy implications. The third section recommends approaches to internet policy that can better protect human rights and strengthen democracy. The paper concludes with proposals for how universities can contribute to the creation of a more robust digital information ecosystem that protects free speech along with other human rights, and advances social justice.
1) International human rights standards are an essential complement to the First Amendment. While the First Amendment does not apply to how privately owned and operated digital platforms set and enforce rules governing their users’ speech, international human rights standards set forth a clear framework to which companies any other type of private organization can and should be held accountable. Scholars of international law and freedom of expression point out that Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights encompasses not only free speech, but also the right to access information and to formulate opinions without interference. Notably, this aspect of international human rights law is relevant in addressing the harms caused by disinformation campaigns aided by algorithms and targeted profiling. In protecting freedom of expression, private companies and organizations must also protect and respect other human rights, including privacy, non-discrimination, assembly, the right to political participation, and the basic right to security of person.
2) Three core challenges are common to universities and internet platforms. These common challenges must be addressed in order to protect free speech alongside other fundamental human rights including non-discrimination:
Challenge 1: The pretense of neutrality amplifies bias in an unjust world. In an inequitable and unjust world, “neutral” platforms and institutions will perpetuate and even exacerbate inequities and power imbalances unless they understand and adjust for those inequities and imbalances. This fundamental civil rights concept is better understood by the leaders of universities than by those in charge of social media platforms, which have clear impact on public discourse and civic engagement.
Challenge 2: Rules and enforcement are inadequate without strong leadership and cultural norms. Rules governing speech, and their enforcement, can be ineffective and even counterproductive unless they are accompanied by values-based leadership. Institutional cultures should take into account the context and circumstances of unique situations, individuals, and communities. For rules to have legitimacy, communities that are governed by them must be actively engaged in building a shared culture of responsibility.
Challenge 3: Communities need to be able to shape how and where they enable discourse and conduct learning. Different types of discourse that serve different purposes require differently designed spaces—be they physical or digital. It is important for communities to be able to set their own rules of engagement, and shape their spaces for different types of discourse. Overdependence upon a small number of corporate-controlled platforms does not serve communities well. Online free speech not only will be better served by policies that foster competition and strengthen antitrust law; policies and resources must also support the development of nonprofit, open source, and community-driven digital public infrastructure.
3) A clear and consistent policy environment that supports civil rights objectives and is compatible with human rights standards is essential to ensure that the digital public sphere evolves in a way that genuinely protects free speech and advances social justice. Analysis of twenty different consensus declarations, charters, and principles produced by international coalitions of civil society organizations reveals broad consensus with U.S.-based advocates of civil rights-compatible technology policy….(More)”.