The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers will bring together key stakeholders in a conference to examine current questions concerning the regulation of Internet intermediaries as gatekeepers to the exercise of freedom of expression online.
The Conference will engage in critical conversations about the implications of the digital space for the role and responsibilities of Internet intermediaries. In doing so, the intention is to raise questions about the nature and scope of the responsibilities of intermediaries, their role and their relationship with state and other non-state actors, including traditional media actors and civil society organizations.
In raising awareness on the regulatory frameworks of today that will have a profound impact on the future internet freedom, the Austrian Chairmanship of the OSCE and the Czech Chairmanship of the of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers will, on October 13, 2017, be co-organising the Internet Freedom Conference 2017 in Hofburg, Vienna to explore “the role and responsibilities of internet intermediaries”.
The one-day conference will address such issues as Taking stock of Internet freedom: the performance of states and intermediaries; Social media and search engines – global scale editors?; Determining the unlawful nature of third-party content – what does it mean in practice?; and An adequate legal and policy framework for securing Internet freedom.
In the digital ecosystem, internet intermediaries serve as caretakers to information and facilitators of the exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, the right to education, access to knowledge and culture, participation in public and political debate and in democratic governance. Therefore, all regulation and policies applicable to intermediaries have a direct impact on Internet freedom.
The functions of internet intermediaries have evolved over the years with large numbers of questions and debates surrounding the role and responsibilities of internet intermediaries toward citizens online. Internet intermediaries are increasingly expected to do more about illegal contents and activities online. They also play a role in addressing online hate speech, depictions of child-abuse, terrorism-related or copyright-infringing material and other unlawful contents.
The significance of all these developments is that there is pressure building upon internet intermediaries to further control online content. In this respect internet intermediaries are not only expected to remove illegal content upon orders from relevant authorities, but also they are increasingly incentivised to assess themselves whether certain content is illegal or not. Basically, they are being tasked with the balancing of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the parties involved. The assignment of such a role to intermediaries risks leading to restrictions on freedom of expression which fall short of the requirements of legality, necessity in a democratic society, and proportionality with a legitimate aim.
Given that the needs of the society in the digital age are shifting and the role of internet intermediaries is expanding, there is a need to consider more deeply the scope of their duties and responsibilities especially with regards to the protection of fundamental human rights and freedom online. Internet intermediaries critically influence the way information impacts and is received in the digital age. However, it remains the State’s obligation to guarantee and protect freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
Intermediaries should neither restrict free speech nor be held solely responsible for the content of others, however as their critical role in shaping public discourse online becomes ever more evident, it raises many questions of their potential duties and responsibilities therein.