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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN Internet Governance Forum (UN IGF)

High Level Panel 3 “The role of digital platforms in creating sustainable value and inclusive society”

06 December 2021

Delivered by

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Video message)

Dear colleagues,

It is a pleasure to join this panel.  

Every day, across continents, billions of people use digital communication platforms for a multitude of purposes -- from following the news to finding work opportunities; from organizing social campaigns to getting health information to seeking entertainment. 

Digital platforms are essential to a vision of a global online space that is vibrant, safe and open, where diverse views can thrive.

But we face enormous challenges in making this vision a reality.

I will begin with the very basics.

First and foremost, today, about half of the world’s population are still virtually offline. Those living in rural areas and in developing countries, as well as those experiencing poverty, face acute connectivity challenges. Women, girls, and marginalized groups make up the majority of the unconnected people in the world.

Mendingthe connectivity gap is central to leaving no one behind.

To make things worse, many governments are increasingly resorting to internet shutdowns for stifling protests, influencing elections or hiding abuses.

There is no other way of putting this: Internet shutdowns are an affront to human rights. They cut off people’s access to reliable information, their connection to family and friends, undermine businesses, block health services, to name just a few of the serious impacts.
And if we are to create inclusive societies, digital platforms will have to play a fundamental role, facing, the same tensions and hostilities that we find offline.

Violent terrorist propaganda, incitement to hatred, and disinformation campaigns spread digitally, at times boosted by algorithmic amplification. Women, minorities and other vulnerable groups are at higher risk of experiencing online violence and hatred.

And while platforms can be amazing facilitators of communications and business and work opportunities, they turn very easily into gatekeepers, dominating markets and controlling how people exercise their rights.

At the same time, many platforms are built on a systematic abuse of the right to privacy. The scale in which companies are storing and analysing information about internet users is almost unimaginable. This intrusive practice enables abuses such as targeted disinformation campaigns and data-driven discrimination. It is also a treasure trove for government agencies, both used for legitimate purposes and for the surveillance of dissenters, minorities and others.

In addition, platforms’ operations often lack transparency. It is difficult, at times even impossible, for users to have a clear picture of how decisions about online content are made. This ranges, for example, from why some posts are either promoted or deleted, to whether public authorities have been involved in content decisions.

Recently, States have increased their efforts to regulate platforms. Some 40 new social media laws have been adopted worldwide in the last two years. Another 30 are under consideration.

Many of them have features that put human rights at risk, for example by applying overly broad definitions of unlawful or harmful content or by giving State officials broad powers to demand the removal of content, often even without independent judicial oversight. And the new wave of regulation risks further fragmenting the online space.

Responses to any of the challenges that I just sketched out must have one sole purpose: to make the digital space more diverse and accessible, open and safe for all. Sustainable and effective responses will put human rights front and center and enable people to communicate “regardless of frontiers”, as article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it.

Dear colleagues,

Platforms’ growing role in shaping the digital world requires new safeguards for human rights. That includes regulation where adverse impacts – often with offline repercussions --  cannot otherwise be prevented or mitigated. At the same time, we need to avoid giving States new opportunities to control people’s free expression. Badly developed regulation could consolidate deeply undemocratic and discriminatory approaches that feed oppression.

We need to enhance and demand transparency and accountability of decision-making – both from companies and States.

We need more open, transparent, multi-stakeholder discussions on how to regulate speech online and to protect privacy, which is why I very much welcome this gathering.

I look forward to hearing the outcome of your discussions.

Thank you.