UNESCO Issues Guidelines for Governance of Digital Platforms to Safeguard Free Expression, Access to Information

Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a new report titled “Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms: Safeguarding Freedom of Expression and Access to Information through a Multistakeholder Approach”, which outlines a set of responsibilities and roles for various stakeholders to establish an environment where freedom of expression and access to information are prioritized in digital platforms governance processes.

UNESCO, the leading UN agency for the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and to information, said it developed the Guidelines because safeguarding freedom of expression and the right to information while dealing with dis- and misinformation, hate speech, and conspiracy theories requires a multistakeholder approach. The document builds upon relevant principles, conventions and declarations.

The Guidelines outline a set of duties, responsibilities and roles for States, digital platforms, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, media, academia, the technical community and other stakeholders to enable an environment where freedom of expression and information are in the core of digital platforms governance processes.

The Guidelines were produced through a multi-stakeholder consultation that gathered more than 10,000 comments from 134 countries, which according to UNESCO, fostered inclusive participation, ensuring a diversity of voices to be heard, including those from groups in situations of marginalization and vulnerability.

Stressing that cultivating an “Internet of Trust” is a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, it called on everyone to sustain an enabling environment for freedom of expression and the right to information.

The aim of the Guidelines, according to UNESCO, is to safeguard the right to freedom of expression, including access to information, and other human rights in digital platform governance, while dealing with content that can be permissibly restricted under international human rights law and standards.

It argued that digital platform governance that is grounded in human rights would further promote cultural diversity, cultural expression, and cultural diverse content. In the result, the Guidelines outline a human rights-respecting governance system and promote risk-mitigation and system-based processes for content moderation and curation.

UNESCO said: “The Guidelines highlight overarching principles that should be followed in all governance systems that impact freedom of expression and access to information on digital platforms, independently of the specific regulatory arrangement and the thematic focus, as long as those arrangements are aligned with the provisions established in these Guidelines.”

The Guidelines recognize that the application of rules and regulations in every governance system must adhere to international human rights standards, including with Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides that any restriction to freedom of expression must be provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim as set out in the provision, and must be necessary and proportionate; as well as Article 20 of the ICCPR and other international standards, particularly the authoritative interpretations of these treaties’ provisions by the UN Human Rights Committee, international and regional human rights courts, and the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.

UNESCO noted that the Guidelines may serve as a resource for a range of stakeholders: for policymakers in identifying legitimate objectives, human rights principles, and inclusive and participatory processes that could be considered in policymaking; for regulatory and other governance bodies dealing with the implementation and evaluation of policies, codes of conducts, or regulation; for digital platforms in their policies and practices; and for other stakeholders, such as civil society, in their advocacy and accountability efforts while the news media can also benefit from the Guidelines in their efforts to hold powerful actors accountable.

It said the Guidelines are also part of the broader toolkit of actions necessary to achieve sustainable development as they will encourage and contribute to the development of global multistakeholder networks and common spaces to debate and share good practices about digital platform governance, gathering different visions and a broad spectrum of perspectives; serve as a tool for all relevant stakeholders to advocate for human rights-respecting regulation and to hold governments and digital platforms accountable; advance evidence-based and human rights-based policy approaches; and encourage as much worldwide convergence as possible in platform governance policies to avoid internet fragmentation.