US, EU Issue Recommendations for Online Platforms on Protecting Human Rights Defenders Online

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The United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU) have issued 10 recommendations that online platforms operating global cross-border services, as well as those operating in specific regions or countries should take in partnership with other stakeholders to improve the safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) across the globe.

Titled “US-EU Recommended Actions for Online Platforms on Protecting Human Rights Defenders Online”, the seven-page document issued in March 2024 sets out 10 recommendations that the US and the EU are asking online platforms to use to “determine and implement concrete steps to identify and mitigate risks to HRDs on or through their services or products.”

They said the measures taken by online platforms should be based on holistic risk assessments that take into account local circumstances, adding that by implementing the recommended actions, online platforms will set in place processes to mitigate the risk that their products or services will compromise access to information or privacy rights or will be linked to threats and abuses of HRDs, including unjust restrictions on freedoms of expression or association.

Describing HRDs as members of human rights non-governmental organizations, trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, environmental activists, women’s rights advocates, representatives of indigenous peoples, youth activists, and advocates fighting against racism and all other forms of discrimination, among others, the U.S. and the EU noted that these groups of people who play a crucial role in protecting human rights offline and online are often targeted online because of their work to defend human rights.

According to them, significant threats to HRDs stem from state and non-state actors who target HRDs online, including through arbitrary or unlawful online surveillance, harassment, smear campaigns, disinformation, doxxing, and by silencing HRDs on online platforms.

The US and the EU said online targeting of HRDs often happens in conjunction with or facilitates physical threats, including beatings, killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions.

They observed that women HRDs, LGBTI HRDs, and defenders from other marginalized groups who experience multiple and intersecting discriminations and oppressions are disproportionately impacted by such threats and attacks.

The US and the EU said they were concerned by the rapid growth of these threats against HRDs as a result of which they have prioritized joint efforts to globally advance HRD protection through their development of guidance for their missions overseas as well as through their work to protect HRDs online within the US-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC).

They insisted that the rights enshrined 75 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and later in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) apply both offline and online, adding that they have been endorsed globally and serve as a common point of reference for governments and the private sector regarding the human rights that may be impacted by the use of technology.

In addition, the US and the EU said, technology companies have a responsibility to respect human rights in line with the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and, where applicable, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct for Multinational Enterprises.

They noted that “Given their ubiquity and importance to many aspects of individuals’ lives, online platforms and the broader ecosystem of Internet intermediaries have enormous potential to leverage their resources and influence to reinforce respect for human rights and protect those who risk their lives to defend these rights.”

The US and the EU explained that the recommendations reflect commitments they made with global partners through the Declaration for the Future of the Internet as well as key principles of US and EU legislation, initiatives, and policies to safeguard human rights online, such as the EU Digital Services Act.

However, they stressed that the recommendations do not impose or supersede requirements under US or EU law and may be followed by further actions taken by the US or the EU to promote rights-respecting approaches by online platforms to address the needs of HRDs.

The US and the EU said the recommendations were informed by extensive stakeholder consultations organized by them between January 2023 and February 2024, with participants including civil society organizations (CSOs), HRDs, experts in digital and physical safety, organizations that have served as trusted partners, private technology companies, trust and safety experts, mental health professionals, and UN experts.

They pledged to continue engaging with HRDs, emergency assistance providers, trusted partners, online platforms, and other stakeholders to address online challenges and risks to HRDs as well as to promote and facilitate the implementation of appropriate safety and protection measures.

The recommendations, which are elaborated in the document, are to:

• Commit to an HRD Protection Policy
• Identify Risks to HRDs
• Exchange Information with HRDs, CSOs, and Industry Peers
• Create a Policy Implementation Plan to Mitigate Risk and Prevent Adverse Impacts with Monitoring Benchmarks to Measure Success
• Resource and Staff HRD Protection Efforts
• Build Capacity to Address Risks in Local Contexts
• Provide Safety Tools and Security Education to HRDs
• Create and Maintain Accessible Incident Reporting Channels for HRDs
• Contribute to and Provide Access to Remedy
• Commit to Transparency, Public Reporting, and Continuous Improvement