Patrick Penninckx, Head of the Informational Society Department at the Council of Europe
Projecting Europes Values in the Digital Field. Where do we start?
Human rights lie at the heart of Europes democracies and ensuring their protection and full enjoyment in the online environment must be the starting point for projecting our democratic values in the digital field. The European Convention on Human Rights applies online equally as offline. Council of Europe member States therefore have the obligation to secure the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention also in the online environment. This implies not only a negative obligation to refrain from violations of human rights, but also a positive obligation to take measures to protect everyone within their jurisdiction from human rights abuse committed by private actors, including by putting in place appropriate legal frameworks. In sum, policy development and law-making must be inspired by and inseparably linked with the implementation of internationally recognised human rights standards.
How can we protect our values in the digital realm?
Digital technologies and AI tools impact the exercise of human rights in multiple ways. The more they are used, the more pervasive their impact. The Council of Europe leads an ongoing reflection and provides guidance to its members states for the protection of HR and democratic values in the digital era. The recent Declaration Decl(13/02/2019)1 warns against manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes and the follow-up Recommendation CM/Rec(2020)1 of the Committee of Ministers to member States provides guidance on the human rights impacts of algorithmic systems, while the Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)7 provides specific guidelines on how to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment. The CDMSIs expert committee on freedom of expression and digital technologies(MSI-DIG) is currently working on a draft recommendation on the impacts of digital technologies on freedom of expression.
How to reconcile content moderation with freedom of expression?
Digital technologies have fundamentally transformed our patterns of communication and news consumption. The number of internet users has grown from some 10% of the world population in 2003 to 62% in 2020 which represent almost 5 billion persons worldwide. The amount of content online, including illegal, and legal but undesirable material, has also grown exponentially. Across Europe, States are grappling with the effort of combatting illegal content. Existing co- and self-regulatory approaches have proven largely ineffective as they often lack clarity and enforcement mechanisms. Following a prolonged period of reliance on self-regulation by platforms, States are increasingly starting to regulate (including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France, UK, Ireland) but implementation of the new laws related to intermediary liability is challenging. Joint approaches are important to avoid fragmentation of regulation. Of course, the European Union is developing its Digital Services Act Package which is very important in this context. The Council of Europe is providing sector-specific guidance on legislative frameworks and oversight mechanisms that can effectively protect freedom of expression in todays world. A new recommendation is being prepared on on frameworks for content regulation (best practices in terms approaches to content regulation self-regulation, co-regulation).
What can European States do NOW to protect journalisms from online harassment?
Online attacks on journalists present themselves in the form of harassment, intimidation and threats, including threats of physical violence. It essential to ensure that threats and harassment online that amount to criminal offenses are prosecuted and treated like offline offenses. An understanding that offences committed online are not virtual but REAL must be promoted among law enforcement authorities. Training shall be provided to improve their capacity to investigate threats and other criminal offenses that take place online (including those that are gendered). Council of Europe has developed a range of tools to assist Governments in addressing this important issue. Implementation Guide to the CoE Committee of Ministers Recommendation on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors offers a collection of good practices from across Europe and beyond. The new Council of Europe HELP (Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals) course on Protection and Safety of Journalists is now available to assist legal professionals, but also journalists and law-enforcement officials in identifying and tackling the threats towards journalists and other media actors.