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the digest  April 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.

Cybersecurity

Amid widespread cancellations and delays across the UN, the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG)’s report is moving forward—albeit slowly. 

After a deadline extension last month, states have now submitted comments on the pre-draft. A survey of their comments confirms that many areas of disagreement remain. These centre on three key questions:
  • Is a new multilateral instrument for cyberspace needed? 
  • What’s the role of non-government stakeholders in maintaining a peaceful and secure cyberspace? 
  • Is regular institutional dialogue within the UN on these issues needed (and, if so, what shape should it take)?
Getting consensus on these questions was already a big ask. Will the pandemic make it even more difficult? This month, the OEWG Chair will host virtual meetings to discuss the revised pre-draft—replacing the scheduled in-person intersessionals. The modalities for these virtual meetings are not yet settled, but it’s clear that the shift to “digital diplomacy” will bring many challenges. 

Some of these are practical. Will countries with poor connectivity be able to fully participate? What will the decision to hold discussions solely in English mean for accessibility? Will civil society be included? (The 
OEWG Chair’s letter makes no mention of civil society…) 

There’s also a broader cultural challenge. Multilateral engagement at the UN has traditionally taken place as much
outside the negotiating room as within it—in corridor chats, dinners, and drinks receptions. Will these informal, face-to-face aspects of diplomacy translate to pixellated and halting video calls? Unfortunately, the stakes have never been higher. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights noted last month: “COVID-19 is a colossal test of leadership. It demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, and for all”. 

Notes
  • We’ve just published the fourth (and last) in our series of explainers, unpacking the different aspects of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. This one looks at international law. Read the rest of the series on our First Committee info hub

Online content regulation

Hungary’s harsh new set of measures around “fake news” is a clear-cut and familiar example of repression and overreach during an emergency. 

But, as the pandemic progresses, states are also working to restrict content in quieter ways, away from legislative scrutiny: whether that’s local officials in the US “advising” Facebook on the removal of anti-quarantine protest pages, or Vietnam’s government pressuring Facebook to censor political content by throttling traffic to its servers. 

Both of these stories came to light only through journalistic efforts—they would otherwise have remained hidden. This underlines the risks in allowing social media companies to operate as “black boxes”, above oversight and public scrutiny.

None of the major platforms currently offer any meaningful public information on how they make decisions around content moderation; a critical failure of transparency, which was recently highlighted in a
mass open letter convened by the Center for Democracy and Technology. That letter’s core ask—to make public all data on content decisions during the pandemic—is a critical and urgent one. Beyond this, it’s becoming clear that some form of independent, sector-wide oversight is needed. Facebook’s Oversight Board (set to begin making its deliberations in June) may be a promising, if imperfect step in that direction. 

Some readings and other resources we found useful in April:
  • The UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye has published his final report to the UN Human Rights Council. With his mandate concluding this summer, this last intervention focuses on the ways that the pandemic, and government responses to it, are impacting freedom of expression—highlighting five key challenges.
  • On the latest episode of In beta, CIPESA’s Ashnah Kalemera gives a great overview of government responses to the pandemic—including around “disinformation”—across Africa.
  • An important piece by Emma Llanso and Susan Benesch in openDemocracy, highlighting the risks of algorithmic approaches to content moderation.
  • Access Now's report on fighting misinformation and defending free expression in the context of COVID-19
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