23 Apr 2020

Promoting freedoms and protecting activists on social media: What role for NHRIs?

Jason McKeown, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) have an ‘important and unique role in promoting and protecting online civic space and safeguarding human rights’, according to the outcomes of an international conference on social media.

The two-day event in Doha, Qatar, looked at many intertwining links between online activity and human rights, including issues around hate speech, fake news, disinformation and censorship, and how they interplay with our rights to expression, free speech and association.

It brought together a range of stakeholders, including NHRIs, governments, non-governmental and civic society organisations, journalists, Facebook, and UN and EU institutions.

Jason McKeown (right) from the Northern Irish NHRI represented ENNHRI at the conference on 16-17 February 2020 in Doha, Qatar

Debating online content regulations

Through the workshops and plenary sessions, a number of ‘ground rules’ were identified, which provide stakeholders a framework when debating online content regulations.

In terms of legislation and legal processes, there need to be clear and precise laws that set out the boundaries for content restrictions. Participants raised concerns that there was no unified definition of hate speech, which was reflected in the varying degrees to which national laws curbed or defined free speech, often in vague or sweeping terms and changing from state to state. These laws must be necessary, in line with international standards and as least restrictive and intrusive as possible.

There should be accountability, with any moves regarding content regulation to include all stakeholders in consultation processes, and with independent oversight. Participants at the conference voiced that NHRIs were well placed to fulfil this role, given their independence and impartiality. There should also be access to remedy, with room to challenge decisions around online content restrictions, as well as access to an independent arbiter free from any Government influence.

Finally, there should be transparency, withonline companies making their content policies available, with regular transparency reports providing information on why content is removed, including requests from governments. The only social media company with a presence at the conference was Facebook. They provided details on their efforts to be more transparent, including publishing community standards and their appeals processes for content that has been removed or accounts that have been banned.

What can NHRIs do?

A number of recommendations relating to the role that NHRIs can play to promote human rights and freedoms in the online space.

  • NHRIs can provide advice to the state on policy and legislation regarding online civic space that is in line with international human rights standards and laws. They play a central role in holding government to their human rights obligations, and help to shape legislation and policies that are human rights compliant.
  • Journalists, civil society organisations and others in online civic space highlighted curbs to rights, including rights to privacy, expression, assembly and association, through government shutdowns and blackouts of the internet, censorship by social media platforms, and threats of violence or retribution by the state. NHRIs can use their unique position in society to bring voices from civil society to the state and engage with technology companies, such as Facebook and Google, to make them aware of their responsibilities in respect of human rights.
  • NHRIs should work to implement the GANHRI Marrakech Declaration (2018), which looks at the roles and contributions NHRIs can have in expanding civic space and promoting and protecting human rights defenders, with a particular attention to women human rights defenders. Many of the participants highlighted violence and harassment of women in online civic space. Italian MEP Alessandra Moretti gave examples of abuse that she has received online simply because she is a woman, and highlighted the impact of such harassment on women and girls in particular.
  • NHRIs should engage in monitoring and reporting in online and offline civic space, informed by data collection in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16 to ‘promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies’.

The conference clearly demonstrated the role that NHRIs can play in ensuring that freedoms and human rights in the online space are upheld and protected. Although there are challenges related to the fast pace of technological change, it is imperative that NHRIs step up to the mark and use their position in society to ensure that rights are safeguarded, governments are held accountable, and issues are adequately addressed.

You can read the full closing remarks and recommendations from the “Social Media: Challenges and Ways to Promote Freedoms and Protect Activists” conference here.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to ENNHRI.