Do diverging platform regulations risk an open internet?

1 Dec 2022 06:30h - 08:00h

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Chatham House and Global Partners Digital presented their recent study on platform regulations and norms and their potential consequences for an open and interoperable internet. The workshop was designed to collect inputs from the audience in different parts of the world for a final report that is expected to be published in early 2023.

Preliminary findings of the research show that the average regulatory regime addresses online harm by fineing (71%) or by blocking (51%) platforms classed as illegal (75%) in a county once a platform has been notified (76%). These figures were obtained from 55 pieces of legislation from 50 locales. Provisions for content that is not illegal, but which is in some way seen as harmful, ranging from pornography to self-harm content (53%), have also been made.

States can be divided in three broad groups by models of digital platform regulation: independent regulation, proactive monitoring, and firm regimes.

Independent regulation is enforced by an independent regulatory authority. Limitations on regulator enforcement powers are in line with freedom of expression safeguards and proportional regulation between types of online platforms is backed by fines.

Proactive monitoring has several characteristics: proactive content moderation requirements; and individual employee liability for content moderation failings. Legal content that could be damaging to social order is also monitored. Sanctions are blocking and restricting access to content.

The last model, that of firm regimes, is the most strict. It provides for prison sentences for platform employees; and no distinction in regulation between types of online platforms. Legal content that could be damaging to social order is targeted by regulation.

However, such a division of regulation is based only on some common patterns traced in legislation. The main point is with implementation, which depends on many factors, including the local democratic context in each country.

Panellists provided more details on regions of the study. In Europe, for example, the recently enacted Digital Services Act (DSA) provides more clarity on the liability of platforms as well as that of implementation. Looking outside of the EU, most national level platform regulations also include clear requirements around notice and takedown procedures. Although the mechanisms differ between countries, most of them require platforms to have a user complaints mechanism in place. Some of them also require appeal mechanisms through which users can appeal platform content moderation decisions. Also, in outliers (Russia, Belarus, Turkey), platform regulation includes vaguely worded restrictions on politicised and subjective content types and on criminal sanctions on individual platform employees for failing to comply with regulator demands.

In Latin America, no regional body produces directives or regulation for countries. Therefore, very different approaches are found in the region. The common narrative is that technical giants do not take into account user experiences where platforms produce harm and misinformation, and abuse.

Regulation in many African countries is not focused on regulation in terms of standards; rather, it is about control. Control protects the state and agents of the state, whereas standards protect everyone. In many countries, platforms were literally forced to be registered, because the last chance for a civic space is the digital space and states want to force sanctions without court rules and decisions.

Finally, from South Asia, perspectives on Pakistan and India were presented. These states still have laws from a colonial past that protect the state more than the individual, and this state of affairs has been inherited in the digital field. In Pakistan the situation has slightly changed since 2008 with the election of a democratic civilian government. Development of content regulation rules is a contentious process in which Pakistani civil society is modifying the approaches of government and political parties with the help of the judiciary system, it was noted. In India, the state has a protectionist attitude towards platforms that includes a constant distrust of non-Indian platforms; they are viewed as forces of modern digital colonialism. As a result, regulation is a means of exerting sovereignty over these platforms. Currently, the Indian government is discussing several new draft bills to regulate different types of platforms; initial versions exert pressure on rights and freedoms of users and envisions severe restrictions on platform owners.

It was also highlighted that companies have challenges navigating complex national legislations. Having a global baseline standard for regulation would help companies with a global presence, but there is a long way to go. Enforcement is always as imperfect as regulation.

By Ilona Stadnik


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