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the digest  March 2020
COVID-19 is an unprecedented global public health challenge. It also poses significant risks for human rights in the digital environment. Over the coming months, we’ll be refocusing this newsletter to look at how the pandemic is impacting discussions around cybersecurity, online content regulation, and emerging technologies—while also highlighting useful tools, resources and insight from the wider community.

Online content regulation

As early as February, the World Health Organization (WHO) was warning of a cominginfodemicaround COVID-19: “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Since then, rumoured “cures” have proliferated on social networks (sometimes fatally), while states including Russia and China have been accused of “waging disinformation campaigns” —including promoting conspiracy theories that the virus originated in the US

In response, tech companies are radically stepping up measures to tackle disinformation. Twitter has expanded its Content Policy to include “content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19”, with Facebook and YouTube also taking an overtly more interventionist stance. One notable casualty of this renewed zeal for content moderation has been Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose video was simultaneously removed by all three platforms. 

Many have welcomed the platforms’ approach, with some commentators even prophesying the end of the “techlash". Evelyn Douek’s new article in Lawfare takes a more sober view, emphasising the need for continued scrutiny and pressure. And GPD's Head of Legal Richard Wingfield gives a critical overview of the new measures on episode 1 of our relaunched In beta podcast, which we'll be putting out every week.

Getting the right balance on these questions isn’t, of course, always simple—even in normal times. For companies seeking guidance on how to implement rights-respecting responses to COVID-19, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has just launched a dedicated hub—along with an (excellent) due diligence tool, drawing on the UN Guiding Principles.

Cybersecurity

The pandemic has reportedly brought about a sharp increase in cyberattacks—including likely acts of “cyberespionage” by state actors. At the same time, global travel bans and a marked lack of intra-state solidarity—even among historic allies—seem to be signalling a turn (at least temporarily) away from the international order. 

What will this mean for the emerging framework around cyber norms and responsible state behaviour in cyberspace? At the time the virus struck, discussions were progressing at the UN’s First Committee (albeit slowly, and with many sticking points). 

While the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) and Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) have yet to say anything publicly about COVID-19, other stakeholders have not been silent. The International Red Cross—an active stakeholder in OEWG discussions—has proposed a new cyber norm on not harming medical facilities. Existing GGE norms on protecting critical infrastructure (widely understood to include health facilities) have also acquired a new salience with this crisis. It is crucial that all states respect them.

Final note: for those engaging at the First Committee—here’s a quick rundown of what’s coming up:
  • Consultations on the OEWG pre-draft report have just been extended to 16 April (you can read our submission here). For information on submitting as a non-governmental stakeholder, contact the NGO liaison Allison Pytlak (allison.pytlak@wilpf.org).
  • The new draft is scheduled to be released in May.
  • For now, the plan is still to hold informal intersessionals in late May. Obviously, as with the last substantive session scheduled for July, this might change.

Useful resources

It’s hard to keep track of all the new government responses to the pandemic.Rapid response anti-disinformation units. Contact tracing apps. Emergency laws.

All are likely to have significant implications for human rights. Here are some tools and resources that are helping us make sense of it so far:
  • The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker—monitoring government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, with a special focus on emergency laws.
  • This useful tool by our friends at Privacy International, which maps and tracks measures taken by governments around the world to combat COVID-19.
  • Access Now’s recommendations on privacy and data protection in the context of COVID-19.
  • A joint statement from civil society groups in Latin America—including our partners Derechos Digitales—calling on governments to respect human rights when deploying digital technologies to fight COVID-19.
  • Our partner CIPESA have a rolling Twitter thread, collating key developments around the virus and internet freedom in Africa. They’ve also published an interesting and useful article, looking at the “necessity and proportionality” of COVID-related surveillance initiatives on the continent.
  • Our own framework for assessing whether disinformation-related policy responses are rights-respecting. 
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