Creating sustainable value and inclusive society – the role of digital platforms

6 Dec 2021 13:00h - 14:00h

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For creating an open, free, and inclusive digital society, apart from connecting people who are not yet connected, it is important that digital platforms build trust, and be accountable and transparent.

Concerns were expressed regarding the rise in hate speech and violent content; the infodemic; the increase of child exploitation online; the lapse in implementing privacy- and data-protection rules related to children by all online platforms; digital rights violation; internet shutdowns; the growing market power of tech companies; increased surveillance by nations and companies that is affecting the right to internet access and freedom of expression; and the safety, security, and privacy of digital rights.

For addressing the challenges, Mr Roberto Viola (Director General of Communication, Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT), European Commission) highlighted the vision of the European Commission to bring democracy to the internet by adopting a human-centric approach through regulations such as the Data Governance Act that aims to create public and accountable governance of data spaces, the Digital Service Act that looks at accountability and the role of platforms, the Digital Market Act that looks at issues related to market power and balance, and the Artificial Intelligence Act that takes a risk-based approach.

In terms of initiatives taken to harness technology, Mr Maximo Torero Cullen (Chief Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)) highlighted the initiatives being taken by the FAO to accelerate the transformation of digital agri-food systems through the effective use of digital technologies and platforms to raise economic benefits. These include the 1,000 Digital Village Initiative which promotes the digital transformation of villages and small towns across the globe and enables farmers to use digital technologies. This platform, launched in 2020, aims to create interactive data maps, analyse trends, and identify real-time gaps and opportunities.

In terms of what needs to be done, Cullen spoke of renewed efforts to improve domestic policies and strengthen international cooperation, both of which should provide increased and targeted investments for reducing the digital divide and ensuring no one is left behind. Ms Najat Maalla M’jid (Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children (SRSG/VAC), UN) highlighted the need to make the digital space safe for children and for adopting a child-rights-centric approach. Apart from closing the digital divide, the internet needs to be inclusive for children. Children should have a right to express themselves freely and safely. 

Mr Josh Kallmer (Head, Global Public Policy and Government Relations, Zoom Video Communications) stated that the industry needs to enhance inclusion and safety, and tackle existing challenges. It needs to build trust, maintain transparency, and tailor platforms to ensure they contribute to the ecosystem meaningfully and responsibly. Kallmer stressed the importance of companies subjecting themselves to scrutiny and answering difficult questions.

On the issue of content moderation, Mr Tawfik Jelassi (Assistant Director General, Communication and Information, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)) expressed concerns over the approach adopted by digital platforms and some countries to regulate online content, which may lead to overregulation and limit the freedom of expression. To address the issue related to hate speech and misinformation, UNESCO believes in trying to make internet companies provide greater transparency. Additionally, more transparency is required related to expected outcomes. There is a need to stop looking at issues related to content moderation from a US- or EU-centric approach and listen to voices from across the globe, Ms Nighat Dad (Board Member, Oversight Board) stressed. She highlighted how, while taking decisions, the board tries to balance the need to uphold a user’s right to freedom of expression with the possible global impact of a decision. 

The need to engage civil society groups was emphasised by Ms Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media, Simon Fraser University). She stated that there is a need for more research, and that research should not be limited to private companies providing researchers access to data, but allow both privacy and democratic expression.

In terms of initiatives adopted by UNESCO, Jelassi mentioned the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence which encompasses a human-rights-based approach to use of AI, capacity-building initiatives (training civil servants and 23,000 judiciary operators), and creating an online course on AI and the rule of law.

In regard to the structure and business models of platforms, Dad suggested the need to push companies to be more accountable, transparent, and enhance self-regulating mechanisms. Chun stated that there is a need to work with communities which use the same technologies for combating issues, look critically at what is not working, and try to address those issues. Jelassi cited a UNESCO report which suggests 26 high-level indicators for enhancing the transparency of internet companies.

By Amrita Chouhury

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