the digest  November 2019

Notes from the last IGF of the decade

Last month GPD was at the 2019 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Berlin, Germany. 


Artificial intelligence (AI) was notably high on the agenda this year. Interestingly, discussions around this issue seem to be shifting from a purely ethics-based framing, with a significant number of panels and side events stressing the need to embed international human rights into governance frameworks dealing with AI. 

Other popular items included the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel Report and its recommendations for an “IGF plus”, and the Internet Society’s recent sale of .org (a domain name used by many civil society groups and non-commercial entities) to a private equity firm. The appointment of a UN tech envoy was also announced, although it’s unclear when this will happen. 

Across the sessions, there was a marked focus on cyber norms and the geopolitical dimensions of cybersecurity—once niche topics which are becoming increasingly mainstreamed in broader internet governance discussions, spurred in part by discussions at the First Committee and the recent report from the Global Commission of Stability in Cyberspace. This crossover between cyber norms and internet governance discussions could be an opportunity for a broader range of stakeholders to engage in traditionally closed discussions. 

The IGF itself has produced an interesting data-led breakdown of the key themes and trends from the event. A few other things we picked up:

  • Was this the most political IGF yet? Only a few years ago, the IGF was primarily seen as a talking shop for civil society and the technical community. This time—at least anecdotally—there seemed to be significantly higher government participation. And geopolitical tensions loomed large over many of the sessions we attended, particularly around cybersecurity and disinformation, where state actors played out the same faultlines and debates that we’re seeing in current First Committee discussions. "One world, one net” indeed…
  • Shift in the online content regulation debate. Only last year, many IGF participants and commentators were surprised by French President Emmanuel Macron’s keynote speech, in which he called for a more regulated internet. This year, a session on disinformation featured an (albeit small) survey of IGF participants, showing broad support for a “duty of care” on online platforms, and even relative warmth towards NetzDG-style requirements for content removal.


One important cyber development was notably absent from IGF discussions.

In early November, a resolution on “Countering the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Criminal Purposes” passed in the UN’s Third Committee, with 88 votes for and 58 against (and 34 abstentions). It calls for the establishment of an ad-hoc intergovernmental committee to draft a new legal instrument on cybercrime, and will be voted on in mid-December. If (as expected) it does pass, the committee will be ready to start work in August next year.

This should concern all human rights defenders. The resolution calls for the drafting of an instrument that would likely cover a much broader range of issues than those in the Budapest Convention. As well as extending state control over online activities—including those currently protected under international human rights law—such an instrument could make cross-border responses to cybercrime less effective, as we argued in a joint civil society letter on the resolution. We’ll be following this development closely in The Digest. 

  • GPD’s cyber team was in New York last week for the intersessional meeting of the UNGA First Committee Open-ended Working Group. We’ll be sending round an update on that (as well as the December meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts) shortly. 
  • We’ve published a new brief unpacking the UN GGE’s framework on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, focused on confidence building measures. Read it here.

Online content regulation

The spread of disinformation, particularly during elections, continues to attract the attention and scrutiny of governments, tech companies and civil society. 

At a Chatham House event in November, experts from different sectors spoke about the challenge disinformation poses, as well as the efforts that governments and companies are making to try to deal with it. The event coincided with the launch of a new report, which looks at the relationship between disinformation and human rights, as well as the steps that governments, companies and other actors should take to respond to the threats posed by disinformation in a human rights-respecting manner. It’s well worth a read.

November also saw two of the largest tech companies—Twitter and Google—announcing new policies to deal with political advertising during electoral periods:
  • Twitter has taken the strongest stance in simply prohibiting outright all political advertising (i.e. content which references a particular candidate, party, election, referendum, piece of legislation or judicial outcome) as well as all advertising by politicians and political parties. 
  • Google’s approach is less stringent. It bans any targeting of election-related advertising except when based on age, gender, and general location, and revises its advertising policies to prohibit “deep fakes” (doctored and manipulated media) as well as ads which make “demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process”. 
Facebook has not yet taken any similar steps, although it is said to be considering curbs on "microtargeting" to small numbers of people.

Not everyone has welcomed these new policies. Some have pointed out the difficulties inherent in defining which issues are “political”—arguing that Twitter’s ban on "political ads" could create a situation where environmental groups are banned from advocating against climate change, while oil companies have free rein to promote their brands. We’ll be following this debate as it develops.

Business and human rights

Are we any closer to a binding international treaty on business and human rights? 

Last month saw a five day debate and discussion on the new Revised Draft at the Open-ended intergovernmental working group on business enterprises with respect to human rights (OEIGWG). 

Overall, it’s a clear improvement on last year’s Zero Draft. By covering “all business activities” rather than only business activities of “transnational character”, it’s now much more in line with the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs). And tighter language around “for profit” activities will help ensure that state-owned enterprises will not fall outside the scope of the treaty. There is also a stronger focus on human rights due diligence, and notable progress on requiring states to establish corporate criminal liability.

Critical absences remain. Notably, the draft proposes almost nothing to tackle the lack of transparency around the relationship between private companies and the state (for example, with regard to surveillance). In this regard, it falls far short of domestic legislation such as the UK Modern Slavery Act or the California Supply Chain Transparency Act. 

Will the treaty process end up rectifying gaps like this? It’s unclear. Some parties involved—notably the United States—oppose the process altogether, claiming it detracts from the UNGPs, which they argue are more appropriate. And even the European Union, which is supposedly on board with the Revised Draft, was absent from the OEIGWG discussions. 

At the same time, almost nobody involved wants to talk about human rights. At these latest discussions, the lone mention came from a Namibian representative, who suggested adding the right to privacy to a list of proposed criminal offences that businesses could be held liable for under the treaty. 

Overall assessment? Some promising signs, but human rights defenders need to maintain pressure and scrutiny on the process.
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