Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
After participating in the UNESCO conference on “Internet for Trust” and meeting various experts on tech policy last week in Paris, I came away more convinced that there is likely never going to be one big global regulator or common regulatory scheme that will save democracies from the negative effects of social media.
UNESCO gathered an extraordinary group of experts, government officials, members of civil society and whistleblowers from all over the world to discuss the health of the information ecosystem, and to review a set of draft global guidelines for regulating digital platforms. But while it was edifying to meet Facebook whistleblower Daniel Motaung and his colleagues from The Signals Network, and to hear from Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello onstage, the range of views expressed made it clear how vast the differences are between countries.
Of course, people who’ve had the experience of a flawed election, an attempted coup or years of strongman rule enabled by incompetent social media platforms are furious at big tech and want regulation as soon as possible. Maria Ressa spoke persuasively about her experiences facing online violence and why regulation is needed to deal with it. She compared fact-checking to taking a cup of water out of a polluted river, cleaning it and then putting it back again. “What you need to do is shut down the factory,” she said. Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, whose offices were invaded on January 8th by a pro-Bolsonaro mob, argued that regulation can balance the financial incentives of the tech giants, which make money from driving engagement, with the interests of democracies.
But while the Europeans have plunged ahead with the Digital Services Act and the UK will likely advance its Online Safety Bill, much of the rest of the world doesn’t seem like it will be quick to act. The Estonian Ambassador for Human Rights, Minna-Liina Lind, said because her country has not been much affected by online mis- and disinformation, tackling the problem isn’t a priority for Estonians and that they prefer to focus on the good things that the internet has brought. In Argentina, regulation is a non-starter, according to various Latin Americans at the conference.
Law professor and former UN rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye said that when it comes to tech regulation, we need to start from a right-based perspective and guarantee freedom of speech except in a few special cases. (He released a ‘rough critique’ of the UNESCO guidelines last week.) Damian Tambini from the London School of Economics countered by asking why the right to a fair and free election is not as important as the right to free speech online? Most of the conference attendees appeared to agree with Tambini. But representatives of some countries that recognize they lack the leverage to reign in platform power took a practical approach: Helani Galpaya, Chief Executive Officer of LIRNEasia, a digital policy think tank in Sri Lanka, pointed out that countries in her region lack capacity to support independent regulators, much less the budget necessary for enforcement. “The role of the government is to make sure that platforms follow their own rules,” said Pansy Tlakula, Chairperson of the Information Regulator of South Africa.
Others seem fed up with waiting for Meta to live up to its promises on content moderation and note that it has been warned repeatedly about toxic speech, incitement and false information on Facebook and Instagram. “People are having a technocratic discussion, but the solution is in front of us,” said content moderator-turned-whistleblower Daniel Motaung, calling for regulation as well as unionizing of content moderators. “Countries go to war because of social media. Religions go to war because of social media but we’re afraid to do anything.”
Notably missing from the conversation were government representatives from the US and China. In the early days of these discussions, some warned of a “splinternet,” with fragmented systems and laws around the world. Now as time passes, the splinternet feels more likely than ever, given the US’s laissez-faire approach and China’s heavy hand. Columbia University Law Professor Anu Bradford has written extensively of the Brussels effect and the influence that the EU has on the rest of the world. Her forthcoming book, Digital Empires, makes the case that there are three ways: that of the US, that of China and the path chosen by the EU. Despite all the worries about the Digital Services Act, a few days of UNESCO discussions made it clear that Brussels’ style of regulation may well be the best the world can hope for in the foreseeable future.
Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a lecturer who teaches on global media, innovation and human rights. She writes on journalism and development, investigative reporting in the global south and has published extensively over the last decade on the media in Africa. More recently she has become focused on solutions to the problem of online disinformation, earning her Ph.D. on the topic from the University of Navarra. She is the editor of Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press, 2014) and African Muckraking: 75 years of Investigative journalism from Africa (Jakana 2017). She is the editor of Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms and Governments Control the News (Columbia University Press 2021)