|Jim Waterson Media editor, The Guardian|AIWA! NO!|The culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, who is responsible for overseeing the British media industry, has told an audience of newspaper editors that he doesn’t subscribe to any British newspapers or magazines.
He said he “generally reads a summary of newspapers and certain comment pieces” and had a subscription to Time magazine, while getting his news by listening to BBC Radio 4 and watching BBC TV news. He said he also enjoyed certain columnists in the Times.
Asked five times to name a female columnist he enjoyed reading, he named the Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson.
Wright, a former lawyer who is also responsible for digital industries and regulating social media, has faced questions about his understanding of the media industry. He did not have a Twitter account before taking up his new job in the summer.
In an appearance at the annual Society of Editors conference in Salford, he said quality British journalism was “not sufficiently rewarded” but any proposals on a new government-supported funding model would have to wait for the conclusion of the Cairncross review of the British newspaper industry.
“I’m confident that the review will show that there are ways for quality journalism to go from strength to strength,” he said, suggesting there could be a particular provision for the funding of struggling local newspapers.
“Our press has a level of trust and freedom that is rightly envied across the world, but a free and trusted press must also be a sustainable press,” he said.
Wright said the “transfer of trust from generation to generation can no longer be taken for granted” and news outlets needed to invest in investigative journalism and authoritative reporting of politics.
“We need to persuade the public of the value of this kind of journalism to help the public to rediscover the difference between the things you see online that just aren’t true and good quality journalism.”
He also said newsrooms must diversify the social and geographic background of their employees in order to remain relevant and attract readers: “Ask probing questions about the make-up of your own organisations, not simply because it’s the right thing to do but because it makes good business sense.”
He spoke out against politicians using parliamentary privilege to break court injunctions, such as when Peter Hain identified the Topshop boss Sir Philip Green as the subject of a series of articles in the Daily Telegraph.
“It’s a matter for Peter Hain but as a former attorney general it is very important to respect what the court has decided,” said Wright. “I wouldn’t have done it if I had been in his position but I’m not going to criticise him for what he did. I don’t think it’s sensible of us to push the limits of parliamentary privilege too far.”
|JON ALLSOP, CJR|AIWA! NO!|The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists broke its latest big story over the weekend. Bringing together more than 250 reporters from 36 countries and 59 news organizations—including the BBC, NBC News, the AP, Le Monde, and Süddeutsche Zeitung—the group has started to unveil massive problems plaguing the global medical devices industry. ICIJ and its partners flagged more than 1.7 million injuries and 83,000 deaths linked to implants such as pacemakers, breast implants, and spinal cord stimulators, which manufacturers move around the world as regulators flounder and patients and doctors are left in the dark.
The devices investigation was born out of the work of Jet Schouten, a Dutch reporter who, in 2014, asked European regulators to approve what she claimed was a vaginal mesh, but was actually the netting used to hold mandarin oranges at the grocery store. (None of the three bodies Schouten approached took serious issue with her fake product.) Late last year, based on this reporting and years of arduous follow-up work, ICIJ approved a global look at the devices industry. For the past five months, I sat inside its investigation for CJR, hanging out on conference calls, interviewing partner journalists in 11 countries, and spending time with Schouten in the Netherlands.
The operation I observed was flush with confidence and camaraderie, and deeply impressive. That should not be surprising: ICIJ and the collaborative model it pioneered are having a moment. Two years ago, the group dropped the Panama Papers, a massive leak of offshore tax documents that exposed the accounting tricks of the rich and powerful and landed with a big global splash, implicating a succession of world leaders. The effort sparked the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, then won a Pulitzer, then inspired a nascent Netflix movie that is set to star Meryl Streep. Last year, ICIJ followed up with the Paradise Papers, a second leaks story drawing on 13 million more offshore records.
ICIJ has been around for 21 years, during which it has worked on many different types of story. The medical devices project was nonetheless a departure from its acclaimed recent work, and thus a fresh test of its model. Could a collaboration based on painstaking (and often frustrating) shoe-leather reporting and public-records analysis work at the same grand scale as an investigation rooted in a single, centralized leak? And could a consumer affairs-facing story have the same impact as the salacious secrets of the world’s super-rich?
While every indication suggests the project navigated its technical complexities smoothly, the impact question remains open. Industry and regulators are already paying attention to ICIJ’s findings: yesterday, the US Food and Drug Administration promised to overhaul its device approval rules. Change, however, comes more easily in some countries than in others. As Lebanese journalist Alia Ibrahim told me, while many ICIJ partners were “waiting for the earthquakes that are going to happen once they publish,” in Lebanon, “I could give you 100 examples of how investigations proving corruption, proving malpractice, didn’t lead to anybody being held accountable.” And, globally speaking, ICIJ only deals with regulatory failures that are both widespread and entrenched—and, therefore, likely to be persistent.
As splashy as the Panama Papers were, efforts to overhaul global tax architecture in the time since have largely failed. ICIJ can’t force change, no matter how many journalists it might corral behind its work. But that isn’t the point of the organization. ICIJ is like any top-class individual newsroom, only much bigger. Its model empowers news organizations the world over to shine a spotlight into deep darkness, then joins those spotlights together to make a powerful single beam.
Below, more on ICIJ’s latest investigation:
The Implant Files: You can find all ICIJ’s stories here, its overview of the global medical-devices industry here, and a full list of partners here.
Under the skin: In my piece for CJR, I go into much more detail about how ICIJ followed through on the project, and what it means for the organization going forward.
In the US: For the AP, Meghan Hoyer looks at problems with breast implants, and Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr lay out how spinal cord stimulators have left some patients with agonizing injuries. For NBC News, meanwhile, Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel, and Sarah Fitzpatrick track how US-made devices export pain overseas, and, conversely, how devices withdrawn from the market overseas can remain on sale in the US.
“All Meshed Up”: Watch Schouten and her colleagues at Dutch public broadcaster AVROTROS pass off mandarin orange netting as a vaginal mesh here.
|CRIMSON TAZVINZWA, AIWA! NO!|For so many years I have worked very hard and waited for my left hand to be right. I’m still working hard and waiting …
I admit. This is not my writing style at all – especially when reporting myself. But then here we go. Eisch!. I have decided I share with you some random snippets of my experience or non of it over the 20-plus odd years I have lived on this side of the pond; for I forever shall live in mortal fear of being misquoted or lack of it thereof; or worse still forgetfulness and forgettable. Non consequential or just as ‘SHIT HOLE’ as US President Trump’s characterization of Africa and its populations myself included.
You see! I have seen it all. From ‘dog-whispers’ to ‘bull-horns’ of racial slurs. Some deliberated, calculated and unleashed and the outcome assessed, and blatant and yet others random and ignorant. From people pretending they don’t understand my accent, and least still cannot spell my African surname even as it shows clearly on the identity badge laying on my lapel all the time, all written in English alphabet – and (‘by law’?). Wait! Aah! You name it. But jog on still.
But it still hates …
Take accents for example; and their names. Already cause anxiety and discomfort among and between some lot.
One time years back; just over one-year after September 11: my partner and I planned visiting with friends in New York. Our respective annual leave were generous – could take a good 4 weeks in the summer. We didn’t think much about itinerary or anything except booking the tickets online –lastminute.com and whacked email to our friend Monika – a Czech – American to let her duly know we were on our way and asked what we should bring her from London. Flight Tickets were cheap; £420 apiece return and all.
Except for me to be denied a visa DESPITE the fact I lived in America before. In Louisiana (Lousyana). Barton Rouge.
Despite I was the professionally fully employed between the two of us. As if it should have mattered.
Despite we had our own two bed room flat in North East London; Walthamstow . We bought it for £182.000.00. On mortgage of cause.
My bank statement at that time was very healthy. No reason to complain in this department … at that time at least.
Despite my manager John Pink at Community Volunteers (CSV) writing a passionate passion-able letter vouching for me; tax returns and payslips; bank statements; and the fact that I had not taken sick leave for all the 3 years I had been working with him. And that there was no reason whatsoever for me to get stranded or live off some American public freebies or on government recourse for that matter – we had enough savings in personal and joint account as it stood.
You name it. The whole shebang.
My application failed.
The ‘computer said no.’
Their Sentiment: “There was no sufficient evidence with my application to suggest I would want to return to the United Kingdom after my holiday in America.”
In their pitifully blinkered or myopic eyes on issues of human and social mobility, geography ie population movements and settlements; they had just done some non formulaic calculation; I wasn’t gonna come back to the UK – would go on a runner. ????
And they said my partner could still go ahead though and travel to visit with our friends as she was on a German passport. They made it sound we were very fortunate at least one of us could still be travelling. Dough!
No refund for airline tickets even as we informed the Airline two weeks in advance.
We took it in our synchronized stride and jogged on.
Images of ‘black men’ doing ‘black man bad man tings‘
Is it me? Every time I watch news on telly and there is some robbery or stabbing or even an accident that has taken place. I’m conditioned to quickly check if the aggressor, violent person at that were a black man or not. Simple demographic statistics. And praying … “Oh God Let It Be Not A Black Man This Time.” Of course there is disproportionate representation of blackman crime versuswhite man crime. The media do that everyday. I work there. Masochistic!
Look! As black men we are wired to self doubt; confess; self interrogate, and question our selves first before the other in any situation what ever situation; a bad one or a good one. We can be impressionable, callous, belligerent and gullible. Don’t speak out for fear of being labelled cocky or arrogant or both or self aggrandizing; therefore double-down on self-minimization and our lack of potential; assumed of course- trying to prove we can fit in while all the while dying of self-pity. The vulnerability.
I’m not a pub man but when I do do happen to go into one all sorts of things happen.
EXHIBIT 2 – Pub In Barcelona
Imagine the famous and memorable Gaudi Architecture; Las Ramblas and the Olympics village in Barcelona.
Las Ramblas Barcelona;
Las Ramblas is often the first landmark that most tourists identify with the city. It is the central most boulevard which cuts through the heart of the city centre and is a vibrant and lively promenade filled with Barcelona action at its best and sometimes the worst.
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was a Catalan architect who is the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism.
Gaudí’s works have a highly individualized, and one-of-a-kind style. Most are located in Barcelona, including his main work, the church of the Sagrada Família
Magnificent! We went up to Gaudi House’ by cable car; did little of nosing around and taking pictures. A cup of coffee. We were four of us; an English couple who had traveled with us from London; long time friends shall I say, and the two of us. My partner then heavily pregnant; irritable, irritating and all … as you can imagine. We all decided we needed a drink after the excursion up the Gaudi Hill. We headed into the next pub that came to sight by The Ramblers, except I thought I remain outside for a little-while to finish off my ‘fag’. I had just started smoking then, and drinking for that matter. And why not – that was pregnancy stress, anxiety and all.
I casually walked in the pub a little while later. Took a quick glance and spotted my little gang patched on a wide table by the corner.
Drinks ordered including my San Miguel. Happy days. Before I realized ; a notably smartly dressed gentleman whom I assumed to be a staffer walked up to me and accosted:
” PARRDONH! My ‘pathronh‘ patrons/customers are not pleased seeing you here.” he said.
“There is another nicer pub down the road,” he added helpfully of course.
Sheepishly and meekly as I always do in ‘these’ circumstances …; I smiled my normal broad smile showing only the white teeth and said something to the effect;
“Sorry. Thank you. Thank you so much. And God’s Blessings!”
What is that all for?
I believe BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS, BLACK BROTHERHOOD just as SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS has undesired consequences and outer-limits for thoughtful intercultural and interracial dialogue; and our common struggle against prejudice: religious, race, creed or OTHERWISE.
Or some pointless meaningless mumble of some sort.
This all happened in full glare of the Mexican and Brazilian dance troupe who stared at the scene in bewilderment, and bemused . World vision! Consequently my lot including the cacophony of the dance ensemble – wobbled out with some apologizing on ‘their behalf’ to me … which was bizarre but understandable for such brazen attack will not happen in the UK where I live; as I am still aware. I presume.
EXHIBIT 3 – Black on black crime and the language of self – hate and hurt.
I don’t know about you. I have decided the British Law of Etiquette & Decorum still works.
It doesn’t really matter what you are at and where are you at in life as long a you are not hurting or hating others, fair and fine.
Article 13 – THE END OF YOUTUBE! – There’s a better way
Article 13 is part of European copyright legislation created with the intent to better protect creativity and find effective ways for copyright holders to protect their content online.
We support the goals of Article 13, but the version written by the European Parliament could have large unintended consequences that would change the web as we know it.
There’s a better way. Learn more and make your voice heard.
What is Article 13?
Article 13 is one part of a proposed European Union (EU) copyright legislation created with the intent to better protect creativity and find effective ways for copyright holders to protect their content online. (Official text here).
To be clear, we support the goals of Article 13 and its push to help creators and artists succeed; we want more effective ways for copyright holders to protect their content. But Article 13, as written by the European Parliament, will create large unintended consequences for everyone, so we’re asking to find a better way forward.
What’s the status of Article 13?
On September 12th the European Parliament voted to move forward with Article 13.
However, Article 13 is not yet a law. The language is being drafted and revised in EU’s trilogue negotiations between representatives from the European Commission, Parliament and Council.
This language could be finalized by the end of the year, and EU member states may have up to two years to make the directive into national law.
What changes with Article 13?
The proposed version of Article 13 would eliminate the existing notice-and-takedown system currently in place to protect rightsholders and platforms. This would make platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, Dailymotion, Reddit and Snapchat liable – at the moment of upload – for any copyright infringement in uploads from users, creators and artists.
This in turn would mean that platforms including YouTube would be forced to block the vast majority of uploads from Europe and views in Europe for content uploaded elsewhere given the uncertainty and complexity of copyright ownership (more on this below).
What would be the impact if the European Parliament version of Article 13 passes?
The risks associated with accepting content uploads with partial or disputed copyright information would be far too large for platforms such as YouTube.
As a result, YouTube would be forced to block millions of videos (existing and new ones) in the European Union. It could drastically limit the content that one can upload to the platform in Europe.
Creators would be especially hard hit. Videos that could be blocked include: educational videos (from channels such as Kurzgesagt in Germany and C.G.P. Grey in the UK), a large number of official music videos (like Despacito from Luis Fonsi or Mafioso from Lartiste), fan music covers, mashups, parodies and more.
As such, Article 13 threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs, European creators, businesses, artists and everyone they employ.
What does this mean for me as a YouTube creator or artist in the European Union?
YouTube and other platforms may have no choice but to block your existing videos and prevent you from uploading new ones in the European Union unless you can prove you own everything in your videos (including visuals and sounds).
What does this mean for me as a YouTube creator or an artist NOT in the European Union?
YouTube and other platforms will likely block your videos (including existing ones) to users in the European Union if there is partial or disputed copyright information.
What types of copyrighted content would I not be able to use in my videos?
Examples of copyrighted material possibly impacted in your videos include images, artwork, software, excerpts from books, music, parodies and much more. (Read more here).
Why aren’t copyright matching tools like Content ID enough?
With Article 13 as currently written, copyright matching tools like Content ID wouldn’t help platforms such as YouTube to keep content on the platform.
Content ID works if rightsholders use it and provide clarity as to what belongs to them. However, in many cases information on copyright ownership is missing, or there is partial knowledge, meaning that no system could accurately identify full copyright information at the point of upload.
Put simply, a piece of content with partial or unknown ownership is – to YouTube – treated the same as a piece of content that is unlicensed and so would have to be blocked.
Is there a better way forward with Article 13?
Yes! We’re asking lawmakers to find a better balance we all need to protect against copyright violations and still enable European users, creators and artists to share their voices online. In order to do that, we need a system where both platforms and rightsholders collaborate.
What this means in reality is three things:
Rightsholders should work with platforms to identify the content they own, so the platforms know what is protected under copyright and can give rightsholders control to block if they choose.
Platforms should only be held liable for content identified to them using tools like Content ID or through notice and takedown.
Platforms and rightsholders should negotiate in good faith where licenses and rights can be easily identified
What can I do to help find a better way forward with Article 13?
European representatives are still working on the final version of Article 13 and there is time to work together towards a better path forward.
The European policymakers involved in negotiating Article 13 need to hear and see that real people could be negatively impacted if Article 13 goes into effect as written by the Parliament! That’s why we need you and your fans to make your voice heard now by:
Making a video about Article 13
Tweeting about Article 13 with the hashtag #SaveYourInternet
Which countries would be directly impacted by Article 13?
All member states of the EU: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland,Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK (at least for now, here’s more about Brexit).
One last thing. What are common misunderstandings about Article 13?
By Professor Charlie Beckett, CJR|AIWA! NO!|What kind of information society do you want? How should we reduce the amount of misinformation? How can we protect democracy from digital damage? How can we help people make the most of the extraordinary opportunities of the Internet while avoiding the harm it can cause?
Working with politicians, technologists, journalists, academics and others from a range of sectors and the general public, we have published this report that sets out a wide-ranging strategy to build a more resilient media system fit for the information ecosystem in the UK.
The key proposal is for an Independent Platform Agency (IPA) that would be a watchdog – rather than a regulator – which evaluates the effectiveness of platform self-regulation and the development of quality journalism, reporting to Parliament and offering policy advice. It should be funded by a new levy on UK social media and search advertising revenue. The Agency should be a permanent forum for monitoring and reviewing the behaviour of online platforms and provide annual reviews of ‘the state of disinformation’.
The report also suggests ways to support the traditional news industry to develop innovative ways to combat the information crisis.
The report calls on the Government to mobilise and coordinate an integrated, new programme in media literacy. This should focus on children in schools – for example, a compulsory media literacy module in citizenship classes – but also on adults in further and vocational education.
The report also addresses the recent problems around media and elections in the UK. It recommends that Parliament urgently brings forward legislation to introduce a statutory code on political advertising, as recommended by the Information Commissioner.
The central message from this report is that the information crisis is causing real problems – in health for example, as well as politics. Any approach to deal with it must be structural because this is a systematic problem that needs a coordinated, comprehensive response.
This is a rapidly evolving set of issues so any policies must also be flexible. Above all, they must avoid causing any damage to the diversity and openness of debate and freedom of expression.
Prof Charlie Beckett, Director of the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission
|JON ALLSOP, CJR|AIWA! NO!|News anchors said those words on election night in 2000, as networks reversed their early call that the Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, would carry the state of Florida and thus the White House. They could have been speaking this week. Florida once again finds itself in tense recount territory, with three statewide races, including crucial Senate and gubernatorial contests, yet to be called a full week after residents went to the polls. This time, doubt has been cast on apparent Republican victories: for Rick Scott in the US Senate race, and for Ron DeSantis in the battle to succeed Scott as governor.
GOP operatives have aggressively pushed the message that their candidates have won—just as they did in 2000. “The effort that Mr. Scott and Republican allies are waging today is strikingly similar to [the] multifront war in 2000 led by the George W. Bush campaign and an army of party consultants,” Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman write in The New York Times. Among other similarities, “surrogates for the Republican candidate are holding news conference calls with journalists and sitting for interviews on cable, blaming the Democrats for tarnishing the integrity of the electoral process.”
The press is used to partisan warring over recount narratives. But our current media climate is very different to 2000. In the past two years, in particular, baseless claims of widespread voter fraud have become a common right-wing trope, percolating into mainstream discourse via coordinated online campaigns. In the run-up to the midterms, hackneyed conspiracies—that Democrats would bus in illegal immigrants to vote, for instance, or that George Soros funds voting machines—swirled on social media. This past week, they’ve crystallized into more specific lies. Far-right internet personalities and trolls have claimed (with varying degrees of embellishment) that crooked Florida election officials have magicked up boxes of Democratic votes since polling day, among other dirty tricks.
Recounts have always posed a problem for 24-hour news cycles. They become big stories because of their uncertainty, but uncertainty means a paucity of hard facts. TV news shows, in particular, thus have to find something else to fill their airtime. Centering the spin of establishment politicians is bad enough. This time, outlets have also had to contend with the incendiary interventions of President Trump, whose tweets accusing Democrats of trying to “STEAL” the Florida elections through “massively infected” ballots themselves reflect online conspiracy theories, as BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko and Kevin Collier show.
As the Florida recount has ground slowly on, media organizations have done a progressively better job of using the wait time to contextualize and debunk baseless rhetoric. (Some, like BuzzFeed, have cited reputable studies showing US voter fraud in general to be “vanishingly rare.”) Nonetheless—as with so much that Trump gives a megaphone—the media as a whole has yet to find a consistent, foolproof way of reporting the president’s falsehoods and unproven allegations without lending them an air of credibility. Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale flagged a series of headlines and tweets that gave oxygen to Trump’s charges. After ABC News tweeted Trump’s “massively infected” line, Dale responded: “Three years into the Trump era, mainstream media outlets continue to blast out his lies to millions of people without pointing out they’re not true.”
Below, more on the still-not-finished midterm elections:
Unprecedented in recent history: The Tampa Bay Times’ Kirby Wilson wraps some useful context around the Florida recounts, which experts say are unlikely to reverse the results. Of the 26 statewide elections to go to a recount since 2000, only three have flipped, and those races all involved finer margins to begin with.
Old news! Donald Trump, Jr., got in on the misinformation act in memorable fashion yesterday, tweeting an article from NBC Miami that he said showed 200,000 Florida voters may not be US citizens. A note editors appended to the original article yesterday speaks for itself: “This story was published in May 2012. The initial list of 180,000 names was whittled to 2,625, according to the Florida Department of State… An Aug. 1, 2012, state elections document showed only 85 noncitizens were ultimately removed from the rolls out of a total of about 12 million voters at that time.”
Wave new world: A week on from the midterms, commentators still can’t decide whether the results qualify as a “blue wave” or not. The AP’s Steve Peoples comes down on the “not” side; but, he writes, “a week after the voting, Democrats are riding higher than they thought on election night.”
Meanwhile, in Arizona: Democratic optimism was further fueled by yesterday’s news out of Arizona, where Kyrsten Sinema was finally confirmed as the state’s new senator, beating out Republican Martha McSally. The drawn-out count was calmer than in Florida, despite Trump’s attempts to undermine it. Over the weekend, Arizona’s Republican secretary of state even published a blog post explaining the delay.
“A dangerous problem”: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan says the media’s rush for firm electoral conclusions does more harm than good. “By giving in to the impulse to analyze immediately, journalists and pundits feed the notion that the election should be over on election night,” she writes. “Hard as it is to do—or even consider—in our crazily speeded-up news environment, there’s only one lesson for the media from the past week: Slow the hell down.”
Doing it all again: Tonight, CNN will broadcast a second election-night special (one week after its first) to update viewers on the shifting midterms picture.
– International Declaration on Information and Democracy –
|JAVIER PALLERO@javierpallero, accessnow|AIWA! NO!|On November 2, an independent commission set up by Reporters Without Borders published a new declaration on issues relevant for human rights in the digital era. The “International Declaration on Information and Democracy: principles for the global information and communication space“ addresses difficult and pressing issues such as misinformation, privacy, and the role of tech intermediaries in ensuring freedom of expression.
The declaration, endorsed by a number of important figures in journalism and human rights, has valuable references to freedom of the press and the protection of journalists, and it calls for a better technological ecosystem for information exchange. Today at the Paris Peace Forum,12 countries launched a political process aimed at providing democratic guarantees for news and information and freedom of opinion – an initiative based on the declaration.
While we share that goal, our analysis offers a word of caution with regard to the recommendations on the role of internet information intermediaries. We explain why this part of the declaration may be problematic for the freedom of expression online if poorly implemented or interpreted by decision-makers.
A necessary call for better conditions for journalism
The declaration takes stock of the current challenges for the free press, which are shared by traditional and digital journalism. It reinforces the key role that journalists play in democratic societies, and makes a call to increase their safety. From our point of view, this clearly includes strengthening digital security, a challenge that journalists face in light of the illegal eavesdropping by both governments and private actors. Journalists need to be able to rely on technology that works for them and protects their sources. That’s why we view the protection of strong encryption as fundamental for the work of journalists, and we commend the declaration’s call for privacy for those participating in the public debate.
Privacy facilitates the exercise of the freedom of expression, which comprises the right to impart and receive information. Both technology and the press play an important role in facilitating our access to information in the public interest. The declaration recognizes this and stresses the social function of the press. We add that our ability to access the internet in times of political and social unrest is also essential in fulfilment of that role. Therefore, states should abstain from ordering internet shutdowns or blocking applications. Despite growing public awareness of such network interference, this dangerous trend is nevertheless escalating, as we recently indicated in a joint report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. We also call for increased attention to the wave of repressive legislation that is targeting online expression and putting journalists’ work and lives at risk.
Another laudable inclusion in the declaration is its call for further transparency. This includes transparency as a means of improving the quality of information but also as a way to understand more about how the content curation algorithms in digital platforms work.
Cautions and considerations regarding free expression
The declaration raises concerns about issues including liability for content dissemination, bias in digital platforms, and the proliferation of misinformation on the internet. We acknowledge and share those concerns. However, we worry that some parts of the declaration may be misinterpreted by decision-makers to adopt solutions that, without further analysis, could harm free expression.
Liability for expression — some important distinctions
The declaration makes note of liability for those participating in the public debate, particularly for content they disseminate or “help to disseminate.” There are critically important distinctions to be made in this area in order to avoid ill-informed implementations of this idea. First, there are technical intermediaries on the internet that help disseminate content, but, as a general rule, should not be held liable for third-party expressions. That is the case with regard to hosting and domain name providers, for instance, which do not participate in the curation or prioritization of content and merely provide technical infrastructure to web pages and apps to function. Legal sanctions for these intermediaries for the content they host would represent a disproportionate measure at odds with internationally recognized human rights principles.
When we consider social media platforms, there is no clear solution and any efforts in the area must be evidence-based. When platforms use algorithmic curation of content, it implies making a decision about the dissemination of information, but that decision is typically informed not only by the creators of the algorithm but also by the conduct of users. Further, design choices and decision-making for curation that rewards user engagement may create an incentive for companies that use these platforms for advertising to track and surveil users, which implicates other rights. The bottom line is that we need more information to understand how content consumption and dissemination really works. Before we engage in any public policy consideration of liability for digital intermediaries on content, which raises clear and significant risks for free expression, we must have clarity on the extent to which different actors in the information ecosystem exert influence over content creation and dissemination.
Neutrality — what kind?
The declaration also calls for “political, religious, and ideological neutrality.” It states that platforms should be neutral on those issues when “structuring the information space.” While we understand the concerns regarding possible bias in the curation of content, public policy actions based on the call for neutrality in the ”structuring” of the information space may leave room for abuse if important questions are not answered first. There is no doubt that arbitrary discrimination is an obstacle for the exercise of free expression. But, what could neutrality mean in the digital information context? Would that mean equal treatment for different kinds of information that are fed into a curation algorithm? Or would that mean striving for an ideal of a balanced output in search results or social media feeds? The definition of neutrality, as we can see, can be tricky. It implies a neutrality of information input, treatment, and output that is hard to achieve across diverse information systems. Take a search engine, for instance, and compare it with a social media service. A search engine indexes a broader range of information not directly influenced by the user, but its processing and presentation of search results is indirectly influenced by user behavior. That’s how search services offer personalized results. Should a search engine’s neutrality efforts be focused on non-discriminatory crawling of sources? Or should it be non-discriminatory in the processing and presentation of results? How is neutrality in a search engine compatible with user personalization? If this is a matter of degree, how much personalization or neutrality is enough, and who gets to decide that?
The question of “neutrality” for social media platforms is perhaps even more complicated. Users themselves input content, and users tend to follow the people and pages that they like. The choices they make reflect their own ideas, religious beliefs, and more. Should companies or governments intervene in the choices of users? To what degree? Should some content or user posts be sponsored to promote “neutrality” or diversity of opinion? Who makes that decision?
The information ecosystem today has characteristics that appear to be promoting polarization and reactivity, which in turn can have a negative effect in democracy. However, confronting this challenge will take much more than asking companies for “neutrality.” It requires addressing business models, information literacy, design for user choice, and social and educational problems. Consider the reports about the use of WhatsApp, a closed communication channel, to spread misinformation in Brazil before the recent elections. This could be considered a “neutral” channel since there is no algorithmic prioritization of the messages that run through the platform. Yet in the broader context of the information ecosystem in Brazil, including the dominance of this channel because WhatsApp is often “zero-rated” and therefore free to use, its use may also have increased the challenges for information diversity and fact-checking.
We agree with the declaration’s emphasis on the idea that with the greater influence, there is more responsibility and a corresponding need for increased transparency. However, given the considerations outlined above, assigning editorial responsibility or possible liability may not be an appropriate answer in all cases. Platforms should, instead, provide users with effective tools to exert the maximum amount of control over their information experience. By default. This could include options such as giving users the capacity to turn off prioritization in a news feed, or adjust it with their own preferences, for example, or to disable tracking and behavioral advertisements. This might represent the type of “neutrality” for platforms that would benefit users.
“Reliable” information — a difficult quest in the digital space
Finally, the declaration’s call for platforms to favor reliable information also raises complex issues for free expression. The declaration recommends as tools in this endeavor transparency, editorial independence, verification methods, and journalistic ethics. In addition to the challenges we explore above related to editorial responsibility, there are also challenges when it comes to a platform’s use of verification methods and journalistic ethics. The expression of opinion is protected as a fundamental human right, and opinion pieces are not necessarily “verifiable.” Speculation, theorizing, satire, and opinion present challenges to fact checking, online or off. It is also vital that neither states nor companies define journalistic ethics. On a number of social media platforms, one’s news feed contains a mix of personal opinion, news items, editorials, and advertising. Although journalistic ethics could play a role in the design of a news feed or help inform the development of a content curation algorithm, independent and human rights based human intervention is essential to mitigate the spread of misinformation on communication platforms.
Conclusion: in assigning responsibility, take care not to deputize platforms as guardians of truth or neutrality
All the issues we have explored are difficult, and a thorough analysis of all their implications would exceed the bounds of this post. The challenges the declaration seeks to address are only starting to be adequately researched and there is a need for more information from internet platforms.
However, we can start with one initial recommendation to those seeking to apply the content of the declaration to public policy decisions: avoid deputizing social media companies or any internet intermediary as a guardian of the truth or neutrality, as this risks consequences for free expression and other protected human rights. Social media platforms, and the dominant players in particular, must take heed of their responsibility to consider the human rights impacts of their products. If by encouraging them to take more responsibility, we also make them the arbiters of truth, however, we put those same rights at risk. And we transfer even more power from the people to dominant platforms.
Today, people access, create, share, comment on, and react to information in complex ways. In the challenges that this poses for our democracies, we must find solutions that empower us to deal with information in a constructive, but also fundamentally free way. This means putting users in control, by giving them more options for how they find, consume, and share content free from manipulation. It also means providing more transparency, especially with regard to ads, including political advertising. Finally, it means looking at the bigger picture and developing business models that do not reward poor quality information that increases “engagement” by playing on basic human instincts of fear, alarm and discord.