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the digest  October 2020

How should online platforms handle elections?

Countries around the world—including Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and the United States—are currently holding or preparing for upcoming elections, which have been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the run-up to these elections, social media platforms have taken unprecedented and striking steps to tackle harmful content and behaviour online.
 

These approaches include: This current proactive approach offers a marked contrast with the 2016 US Presidential election, when social media platforms—particularly Facebook—attracted widespread criticism.

Articles with headlines like “What Facebook Did to American Democracy” and “Twitter Had a ‘Fake News Ecosystem’ Around the 2016 Election” held the platforms responsible for facilitating misinformation and “dark ads”, stoking toxic polarisation, and even enabling interference by foreign governments.

So far, reaction to the new approach from platforms has been broadly positive; with some even calling for further action. But while many of the platforms’ recent moves—such as setting out clear policies for handling election night disinformation—are obviously welcome, the untransparent, closed nature of decisionmaking is a concern.

Many questions remain unanswered. Do platforms have a long-term plan for how they will manage these questions, or are they just oscillating with the news cycle? Will similarly tailored approaches be taken to other elections around the world—or is this yet another example of global tech policy being shaped by the specifics of the US context? 

At a time when governments around the world are looking at regulation of online content, how platforms answer these questions may well influence the shape of regulation. In 2018, France passed its own legislation specifically to tackle online disinformation during election periods, and others may be minded to follow suit if they feel that platforms still aren't doing enough. 

Whatever happens on November 3, and in other elections, it’s clear that the conversation over the regulation of speech by online platforms is far from over. 



Related news
  • The US Department of Justice has launched an anti-trust suit against Google for monopolising online search and advertising. 
  • Also in the US, as part of the ongoing discussion over reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from liability for content they host (useful explainer here), the CEOs of Twitter, Google and Facebook were summoned for questioning by Republican Senators. The hearings were heavily criticised by many media organisations, who described them as “worthless and petty” and “not about Section 230”. 
  • Three important new reports—by Freedom House, CIPESA, and Article 19—painted a gloomy (but useful) picture of the state of freedom of expression in the digital environment.

October updates from the OEWG

At the end of September, the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) held the second in a round of informal intersessionals to capture member state input into the early drafts (the revised non-paper and pre-draft) of the OEWG report.

Although no NGOs were allowed to attend, we heard that the session passed with little turmoil, despite concerns that the topic of “international law” would incite strong disagreement among states.

Lines of disagreement regarding the applicability of international humanitarian law in cyberspace remained a source of contention but were less prominent than expected—perhaps because one of most vocal states on the issue, China, is currently seeking support for its own proposal for a new binding agreement on data flows in cyberspace. Discussions relating to the France-led “Programme of Action proposal” (which we covered in the last Digest and which has since been published on the OEWG webpage), also took place, and it seems like the proposal is gaining momentum and broad-based support. However, upcoming discussions in the First Committee that will set the stage for the coming years look as fraught as they were two years ago (when competing resolutions set up parallel processes), as this piece from CFR highlights.

In October, civil society groups, along with members of the technical community, released joint feedback on the text on ‘norms’ in the OEWG’s current draft text. The feedback calls for the already adopted GGE norms (from the 2015 report) to be prioritised, and offers guidance and good practice on the implementation of the norms from a human-centric perspective. 

Unfortunately, as our friends at Reaching Critical Will have reported, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting changes to the UN’s working methods are driving a further closing of civic space at the UN's disarmament forums—and the OEWG is no exception. In order to circumvent those restrictions and ensure meaningful engagement of non-governmental stakeholders in the OEWG discussions, a group of states and NGOs, including GPD, are working collectively on a series of multistakeholder events (to be held in December) based on the OEWG’s agenda and mandate, in order to collect non-governmental stakeholder input into the revised non-paper and pre-draft. We’ll keep you updated as plans for those events shape up in the coming month. 

Finally, on the topic of closing civic space, GPD signed onto a joint civil society letter to the UN Secretary General, calling for a more open and inclusive dialogue on the implementation of the UN Secretary General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

 

Related news

  • October was Cybersecurity Awareness Month—which saw GPD participate in a range of events. Notably, our Senior Programme Lead Daniela Schnidrig discussed GPD’s approach to cyber and our recently launched Toolkit for inclusive and value based cyber policymaking in two webinars organised by the Internet Society’s Cybersecurity Special Interest Groups as part of their Global Cyber Forum—one aimed at stakeholders in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one aimed at stakeholders in Sub-Saharan Africa (recording here). She also attended a live panel discussion organised by Get Safe Online with the British High Commissioner to Belize, alongside representatives of the National Security Council Secretariat of Belize and the Organization of American States (recording here).

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