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UNESCO triggers discussion on how Internet companies protect online free expression

Internet intermediaries have influence over many areas that affect online expression and privacy, but State policies are poorly aligned with their duty to support intermediaries’ respect for freedom of expression.

These twin conclusions emerged at a UNESCO-hosted session at the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, on 5 September 2014, where eight participants discussed the early results of a joint research project by UNESCO, the Open Society Foundation and Internet Society.

Guy Berger, UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, said that the research explored how Internet intermediaries foster or restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances, technologies and business models.

He said the issue related to debates about both private and privatized censorship, and highlighted that the research deals with exceptions to what should be a norm of the free flow of information.  

Rebecca MacKinnon, the commissioned lead author of the research, gave a presentation on the major findings.

The case study research covers three categories of intermediaries:

  • Internet Service Providers (fixed line and mobile) such as Vodafone (UK, Germany, Egypt), Vivo/Telefônica Brasil (Brazil), Bharti Airtel (India, Kenya), Safaricom (Kenya);
  • Search Engines such as Google (USA, EU, India, China, Russia), Baidu (China), Yandex (Russia); and
  • Social Networking Platforms such as Facebook (USA, Germany, India, Brazil, Egypt), Twitter (USA, Kenya), Weibo (China), iWiW (Hungary).

The research showed that Internet intermediaries are heavily influenced by the legal and policy environments of States, but they do have leeway over many areas of policy and practice affecting online expression and privacy.

The findings also highlighted the challenge where many state policies, laws and regulations are - to varying degrees - poorly aligned with the duty to promote and protect intermediaries’ respect for freedom of expression.

The research also recommends specific ways that intermediaries and states can improve respect for Internet users’ right to freedom of expression. This is through promoting:

  • adequate legal frameworks and policies consistent with international norms,
  • multi-stakeholder policy development,
  • transparency of governance,
  • accountability in self-regulation,
  • mechanisms for remedy, and
  • public information and education.

Among the respondents on the panel were representatives from Google, the Council of Europe, ICANN, EuroISPA, civil society and academia.

Participants acknowledged that it was timely to tackle questions that went beyond intermediaries’ liability issue. The discussion focused on how to have more transparency reports published and how to go beyond industry dialogue and develop a broader framework.

All comments received at this meeting will be consolidated in the final research to be published by late 2014. This research will feed into the ongoing UNESCO Comprehensive Study on Internet.

UNESCO also invited participants to join UNESCO multistakeholder conference to discuss the first draft of the Study, at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 3 and 4 March 2014.