Free Speech Advocates Contemplate International Human Rights Obligations on Big Tech

Experts want corporations held to standards for the volume of information on their platforms.

Free Speech Advocates Contemplate International Human Rights Obligations on Big Tech
Screenshot from Atlantic Council meeting: from left, Graham Brookie, Nanjala Nyabola, Katherine Maher, and Barbora Bukovská.

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2021 – Free speech advocates at an Atlantic Council event on Monday expressed concerned about how human rights laws can be applied to technology companies that possess enormous power over information that can endanger citizens.

The event was held on the same day victims of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar sued Facebook in American and British courts for complicity in the human rights abuses that were precipitated by hatred stoked on Facebook.

Whereas traditionally, citizens of a democracy can hold their governments accountable for decisions related to transparency of information, it is more difficult to that now with big technology companies being the gatekeepers, according to Barbora Bukoská, Senior Director for Law and Policy of international human rights organization Article 19.

“On the internet, this is being more and more challenged because governments are no longer [the ones] who are in control of the information they hold about people,” said Bukoská. “More and more we see corporations, especially Big Tech, making decisions on a basis which we don’t know about.

“International human rights law was designed to limit the use of power and make those who are the most powerful in the society accountable to the people,” Bukoská added. “So that’s why now, with the internet, and different gatekeepers and power brokers – especially Big Tech – we need to really see how we can apply these [human rights] obligations on entities beyond the government.”

As social media continues to evolve and play an increasingly important role in society, experts argued that the way citizens hold corporations and their governments to account must evolve as well.

“It is a conversation. You have a right to know what information is produced, about how it is disseminated, how it is processed, what happens to it after you have generated it, to demand that it is handled with respect to your rights and your dignity, and to demand that it’s processed in a very specific transparent way,” said Nanjala Nyabola, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The panel was the first of a series of events that will run through December 8, as part of Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s annual 360/StratCom Summit.

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