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the digest  June 2020

The UN’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation: can it succeed?

In June, the UN Secretary General published their long awaited Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.


The Roadmap promises to operationalise the recommendations from last year’s High Level Panel report, after an extended period of discussion and negotiation among various multistakeholder roundtables. 

On paper, there’s plenty to welcome in it. As our friends at
Chatham House and Access Now have observed, it’s a highly ambitious framework (“universal connectivity by 2030” and “digital inclusion for all groups” are just two of its eight aims). Importantly, it also centres and promotes a multistakeholder and human rights-based approach to digital cooperation. That these values are so central to the framework is clearly significant, and encouraging.

How the Roadmap will be implemented in practice is less clear. We know that it will involve several new alliances and initiatives—including a multistakeholder digital inclusion coalition and a multistakeholder advisory body on artificial intelligence—and that a new “tech envoy” (appointed in 2021) will support it.

However, the precise role of these new entities—and how they will be selected—has not been explained; nor do we know the fate of the multistakeholder roundtables which have played such an important role in the post-High Level Report discussions. Will these roundtables be involved in the implementation of the Roadmap—or simply dissolved? Can member states get involved in Roadmap-related initiatives? And how will the UN ensure member states actually implement the recommendations which concern them? 


A more fundamental question: can the Roadmap’s multistakeholder and human-rights approach be implemented at the UN? Our experience engaging at the First Committee suggests it’s going to be a hard sell—with states largely split on the question of whether non-governmental stakeholders should be involved in discussions around digital technology. For the same reason, it’s hard to be optimistic about stakeholder inclusion in the upcoming discussions at the Third Committee on a new cybercrime convention.

A lot of challenges, then—and many questions to be answered. But the mere existence of the Roadmap, and the fact that a multistakeholder, rights-based approach to internet governance is being championed at the UN, is hopeful. We’ll be following its progress closely. 


Notes
  • One of the aforementioned multistakeholder roundtables (chaired by Germany and the UAE, tasked with taking forward the discussion on different models for digital cooperation) is due to release a more detailed “options” paper in July. It’s expected that reform to the Internet Governance Forum will play a key part.

Disinformation

In June, alongside ARTICLE 19, CIPESA, PROTEGE QV and the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria (CHR), we launched an interactive tracker to map and analyse disinformation laws, policies and patterns of enforcement across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Some interesting things we’ve learned from the tracker so far:
  • COVID-19 has prompted several governments (including South Africa) to pass emergency measures criminalising virus-related disinformation. Will the pandemic affect the long-term trajectory of disinformation approaches in the region? It’s too early to say—but an interesting question...
  • Restrictions on disinformation in Sub Saharan Africa have significantly increased in the last decade—but you might have to look closely to see them. Only a few countries (e.g. Ethiopia) have introduced new laws specifically on disinformation—most take the form of new offences or measures within existing cybersecurity and cybercrime laws, or broader laws relating to electronic communication and the media. 
  • Most laws addressing disinformation in the region raise concerns from a freedom of expression perspective. They tend to be vague in scope, giving authorities too much discretion to restrict speech; pursue aims which would not be considered legitimate by international human rights standards; and carry disproportionate penalties. 
  • These laws are also being applied in ways which are not rights-respecting. We found examples of informal action by governments, such as the threat of prosecution, to stifle legitimate speech.
In the latest episode of our In beta podcast, we take a deeper dive into the wider trends and findings from the tracker with the team at CHR. Give it a listen here.
 

Online content

A few important things to be aware of going into July:

  • The French Constitutional Council has found large parts of a new law (known as the Avia law) unconstitutional, citing risks to freedom of expression. The Avia law would, among other things, have forced online platforms to delete various forms of “manifestly illegal” content within 24 hours of notification, or face various penalties. 
  • Brazil’s Senate has passed PLS 2630/2020 (known as the “Fake News bill”), which is widely seen to pose a serious threat to human rights. EFF has a good summary of its key problems here. To become law, the bill still needs the signature of President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently suggested he’d veto it.
  • In New Zealand, the government has introduced a new Bill aimed at preventing and mitigating harms caused by “objectionable publications”—including a new criminal offence of livestreaming “objectionable content”, punishable by imprisonment of up to 14 years. While much in the Bill is sensible, the lack of clarity over when something is “objectionable” could risk individuals self-censoring, and affect journalists reporting on events in live form.
  • In June, US President Donald Trump issued an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship”—aimed at narrowing intermediary liability protections enjoyed by online platforms. Eric Goldman has a good overview of the Order here, and Daphne Keller has published a colour-coded, annotated version to show what it might mean in practice.
  • Finally, Facebook has come under fire for modifying its policies on hate speech and voter suppression in response to an advertising boycott. David Kaye summarised the concerns of many, highlighting that—even if well-meaning—using economic influence to shape what we can and cannot say online is no substitute for democratic, accountable policymaking.

Cybersecurity

In mid-June, the Open ended Working Group (OEWG) held virtual negotiations to discuss the “emerging threats and norms” of the Chair’s proposed pre-draft report. Two things to note: 

  1. The timeline is currently unclear. We still don’t know when the third substantive meeting will happen, or when the final report will be presented to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Most member states supported the Chair’s proposal to hold the third meeting in March 2021 and report to the 76th session of UNGA later in the year, but Russia’s disapproval has meant a return to the drawing board.
  2. The negotiations held few surprises—but there were a couple of interesting takeaways. For the first time ever, there was a joint “Africa region” statement; and there are tentative signs that the impasse around the GGE norms (How should they be implemented? Are new ones needed? etc.) might be breaking—with emerging consensus on the need to recognise health facilities as critical infrastructure, and the possibility of a joint proposal on norms.
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