UN: Comments on Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms

UN: Comments on Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms - Civic Space

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ARTICLE 19 submitted comments in response to the proposed UN Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms. In our submission, we highlight a lack of clarity in the scope, purpose, phrasing, and framing of the proposed Code, and emphasise that human rights should be more than a core principle of this document: they should be the purpose of its existence. 

The proposed UN Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms (the Code) intends to ‘guide Member States, the digital platforms and other stakeholders in their efforts to make the digital space more inclusive and safe for all, while vigorously defending the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to access information’. The aim is that the Code will guide various stakeholders, including platforms and governments, in confronting threats to information integrity – like disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour – that are impacting democratic dialogue and efforts to progress on global, national and local issues.

ARTICLE 19 agrees that hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, the manipulation of public opinion through propaganda and state-led disinformation campaigns, as well as foreign interference, present serious challenges to the protection of human rights and democracy. At the same time, we assert that some key conceptual issues warrant clarification prior to the elaboration of a draft text.

First, the Code’s purpose needs to be clarified. Its core principles have already been repeatedly stated and reconfirmed by the UN Charter and treaty bodies, and the current Draft Proposal does not appear to go beyond what can already be deduced from existing human rights standards. Neither is the type of instrument suitable. ‘Codes of conduct’ rely on voluntary compliance, but UN Member States – key stakeholders of the Code – are already bound to many ‘principles’ of the Code as part of their positive obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression. We find it problematic that the proposal suggests that States would be ‘invited to implement them’ when States are already obliged to do so. It is also unclear how the Code will be enforced or implemented. 

Phrasing in the Draft Proposal of the Code of Conduct is also problematic. For example, the document lays out a broad expectation for ‘all stakeholders’ to commit to information integrity without differentiating between types of actors operating in the information space, though different actors have diverse obligations under international law. Key terms, like hate speech and disinformation, are not defined, and some terminology suggests a uniform veracity standard, which is inconsistent with international free expression standards. 

Importantly, ARTICLE 19 is also mindful that disinformation and hate speech are often state-led. It might be more appropriate to directly require States to refrain from resorting to ‘disinformation’ or ‘hate speech’ as part of their positive obligation to promote and protect freedom of expression and other human rights.

Based on these and other issues, ARTICLE 19 recommends that the scope, purpose, and key terminology of the Code of Conduct be clarified. We propose considering similar instruments, such as ‘guiding principles’ or an ‘action plan’ as opposed to a code of conduct. Respect for human rights should not be merely a core principle of this new instrument, but the purpose of the instrument. This means that the instrument should specify that the aim of addressing information threats is to secure the protection of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression. This is not merely an issue of phrasing, but the overall framing of the instrument.

ARTICLE 19 hopes that the development of this new instrument continues to be subject to global multi-stakeholder consultations, guided by principles of genuine transparency, openness, inclusion, equality, participation, and accountability. A wide variety of voices need to be represented at these discussions, ranging from Global Majority actors to human rights organisations, development actors, digital platforms, and the media and advertisement industry. 

Read the full submission