Wikimedia Initiative Event Examines Tech and Human Rights


The Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information (WIII) at the Yale Information Society Project (ISP) recently hosted a panel discussion on the application of human rights standards to tech regulation. 

The March 3 discussion explored how tech companies and governments around the world are grappling with how to regulate speech while protecting individual freedoms such as freedom of expression and the freedom to form opinions. Panelists were Professor Evelyn Aswad of the University of Oklahoma College of Law and Dr. Isabel Ebert from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

One of the key challenges panelists discussed is finding a common framework for identifying what rights are important and then protecting these rights. Using such a framework — for example, the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) — makes it easier for diverse stakeholders such as companies, governments, and civil society organizations around the world to have conversations on goals and priorities. Aswad said that a common set of principles helps businesses understand company decisions and keep them consistent. Tech companies struggle without a framework because sometimes the companies have the power to protect speech by dissidents. However, companies sometimes choose to comply — out of business expediency or in accordance with complex content moderation policies — with an authoritarian government’s request to restrict speech at the expense of a person’s right to freedom of expression, the panelists noted. 

Panelists also pointed out that governments need a framework to converse with companies and to guide the drafting of local laws. Having a framework centers individual freedoms regardless of politics or business interests, they said.

Deciding what principles matter for individual rights online is a difficult task, according to the panelists. Aswad proposed connecting business model regulation to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to hold opinions without interference. This article is arguably more expansive than the right to freedom of expression, which may be restricted based on local laws and political expediency. However, the right to formulate and hold thoughts and opinions cannot be regulated or restricted by business models, Aswad said. Therefore, any tech regulation or platform policy should center around protecting this right, panelists said.

Incentivizing companies to adopt human rights principles is another complication. Ebert proposed that stakeholders work together to develop tools such as the UNGP compliance check. She suggested that these tools would incentivize tech companies to respect human rights and also allow governments and civil society organizations to track the companies’ compliance. 

Mehtab Khan, who leads the Wikimedia Initiative at ISP, highlighted the importance of the discussion. 

“We need to consider models and frameworks that have more global applicability, because we are faced with a challenge that does not respond well to territorial limits,” she said. “Having this discussion also prioritizes overarching human rights principles.”

The Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information (WIII) is a research initiative that aims to raise awareness of threats to an open internet, especially those affecting online intermediaries and their users, and to make creative policy suggestions that protect and promote internet-facilitated access to information.