the digest  November 2020

Are we facing more parallel processes at the First Committee?

Divisions and duplication have been a feature of cyber discussions at the UN since 2018, when two parallel processes (the Group of Governmental Experts and the Open Ended Working Group) were established. 

But in spite of the many tensions and red lines (over a binding treaty, over stakeholder engagement, etc), many had hoped that states agreed on at least one thing: that no new processes would be set up until the current ones concluded in summer 2021.

November saw those hopes summarily dashed. At the UN First Committee meeting, a resolution proposed by Russia—setting up a new OEWG for 2021-2025—was narrowly adopted, without consensus support.

This raises a few concerns for human rights defenders:
  • The current OEWG hasn’t exactly been a model of non-governmental stakeholder engagement, but the new resolution suggests that the next one may have an even weaker commitment to it—by stating that member states “may decide to interact, as appropriate, with other interested parties, including businesses, non-governmental organizations and academia”. 
  • The resolution will create new thematic working groups, which could further fragment discussions—particularly if France’s proposal for a Programme of Action (covered in the September Digest) goes ahead next year. If it does, it will mean the setting up (again) of two parallel processes, both open to all member states, and both with working groups on the same or similar topics. Irrespective of the modalities for stakeholder engagement in these processes, this proliferation of discussions will further stretch everyone’s capacity to engage effectively, not least that of civil society. 
  • The resolution includes “data security” as part of the future OEWG’s mandate, a reference to China’s recently launched and highly contentious “data security initiative”—a proposal for a global, binding regulatory framework on cyberspace that countries in the Western grouping are very unlikely to support.
For a fuller analysis of the resolution and its likely impact, see this excellent summary by Reaching Critical Will (p.10). We’ll be following the story here as it develops.

Other news
  • With nothing official planned to enable wider engagement in the remaining discussions of the current OEWG, a group of non-governmental stakeholders and member states have organised a virtual dialogue series, running from 4-10 December. The dialogue aims to gather non-governmental stakeholder perspectives on the OEWG’s revised pre-draft, and create opportunities for in-depth dialogue between states, civil society, technical experts and the private sector on the themes of the OEWG. GPD is organising the session on Rules, Norms and Principles along with the Government of Canada, Microsoft and APC at 15.00 UTC on Monday 7 December—which will be a great opportunity to share feedback and perspectives on cyber norms and their implementation. Stream it here.
  • November also saw the (virtual) Internet Governance Forum (IGF) take place. Discussions there made frequent reference to growing geopolitical tensions, and the increasing number of (often clashing) regulatory frameworks on issues ranging from cybercrime to disinformation. Questions were also raised about what roles the UN, the IGF, the Secretary General’s Office and his Roadmap on Digital Cooperation should play in internet governance.  

Disinformation in Tigray: how should social media platforms respond?

The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has an increasingly digital dimension. 

Efforts to spread disinformation are reported to be growing, with manipulated images widely shared online, and an increase in online hate speech. The Ethiopian government has, in turn, used this as a pretext for network shutdowns—a disproportionate and widely condemned practice (see Access Now and the Global Network Initiative). 

Intersections between conflict and social media are, of course, not new—and they can manifest in diverse contexts. In 2018, Myanmar’s military was found to have used Facebook to incite genocide against the Rohingya minority group. 

Tigray and Myanmar are different examples of conflict, demanding tailored responses—but they raise similar and important questions. How can social media companies minimise the risks (and benefits) of their platforms before, during and after a conflict? What particular considerations should be taken when moderating content in situations of intra-communal violence? 

There aren’t easy, off-the-shelf solutions here—but some broad principles are clear. Platforms should strive to
be more timely and consistent in their moderation and removal of content, and ensure that these actions are informed by the local context. This means, among other things, considering the historic, political and socio-economic factors at play, and consulting local stakeholders. The role social media plays in one conflict (e.g. Ethiopia) compared to another (e.g. Myanmar) can be completely different. 

There is a growing body of research into how social media plays a role in conflict. Nevertheless, the evolving nature of the challenge makes it clear that more research and analysis is needed to understand that role, while ensuring company responses and government policies are appropriate, evidence-based and proportionate.

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