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UNESCO initiates global dialogue to enhance the transparency of internet companies, with release of illustrative high-level principles


On Monday, 3 May, UNESCO released a new issue brief on transparency and accountability in the digital age, which includes a selection of high-level principles to enhance the transparency of internet platform companies.

Internet companies are increasingly shaping areas central to UNESCO’s mandate, from freedom of expression and privacy, to education, the sciences and culture. Greater transparency into the operations of these companies is key to increasing their accountability and to promoting and protecting human rights in the digital ecosystem. We hope that these illustrative high-level principles to enhance the transparency of the internet platform companies will serve as a starting point for multi-stakeholder discussions towards a framework of transparency to guide companies, policy makers and regulators.

Xing Qu, UNESCO Deputy Director-General

The brief was released during the UNESCO global conference for World Press Freedom Day, at a high-level dialogue moderated by David Kaye, former UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion and current Chair of the Board of the Global Network Initiative, with leading international experts.

The initiative was met with broad support from companies, regulators and civil society.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this excellent new initiative of advocating for more transparency from internet companies unfolds, because it’s much needed. Exactly how it works, in the boiler room, exactly why you see, what you see, in the order that you see it, is often understandably a little opaque to people. It makes sense for regulation to be put on the statute book so that there are mechanisms of transparency, mechanisms of accountability, for the systems that these companies use.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications

The UNESCO issue brief, titled Letting the Sun Shine In: Transparency and Accountability in the Digital Age, presents enhancing transparency as a third way between state overregulation of content, which has led to disproportionate restrictions on human rights,  and a laissez-faire approach that has failed to effectively address problematic content such as hate speech and disinformation.

The brief comes at a moment of heated debate on the power of internet companies in economic, social and political life, and their role in shaping the communications landscape.

It really goes back to the question of power. Who is seen, who is heard, but more importantly, who is not seen and who is not heard.

Nanjira Sambuli, former member of UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation

Regulation for transparency requirements has gained steam in recent years, serving as what Anna Herold, of the European’s Commission DG-CONNECT described in the panel as, “the leitmotif of our policy and regulatory approach at the EU level”.

There has also been a growth in corporate transparency reports and several international and collaborative initiatives. Yet the new issue brief finds that these existing corporate transparency reports have gaps and cover different issues and in different ways, and that existing initiatives have so far lacked substantive impact and occurred in relative isolation of each other.

The brief underscores the value in UNESCO developing a common vision through the development of high-level illustrative principles focused on achieving outcome, which can be applied across industry regardless of size, business model and engineering of platform companies.

The 26 high-level principles included in the issue brief span across issues related to content and process, due diligence and redress, empowerment, commercial dimensions, personal data gathering and use, and data access.

Among the principles include that companies should recognize that they have an obligation to protect human rights and should provide greater transparency about due diligence for their operations, such as in contexts of upcoming elections or countries in conflict.

The initiative to enhance the transparency of internet companies comes as part of UNESCO’s ongoing multi-stakeholder work to promote and protect human rights in the digital ecosystem and develop a recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence.

Authored by internet policy expert Andrew Puddephatt, the brief was informed by a series of bilateral informal consultations with several internet companies, regulators and experts from countries in the Global North and in the Global South.

In the coming months, UNESCO foresees engaging in multi-stakeholder consultations to further develop the principles into a more detailed operational framework.

The brief is published as part of the UNESCO series World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development.