Placing Human Rights at the Centre of Regulatory Frameworks and Legislation on Online Harm

18 January 2022

Online platforms and social media have become an integral part of the daily lives of millions of individuals worldwide. Concerns about the dissemination of illegal content via these platforms and disinformation and misinformation on social media have prompted states and international organizations to seek to strengthen the regulation of online content.

The respect of human rights by technology companies, such as online platforms and social media companies is therefore crucial for leveraging and fostering a rights-respecting technology ecosystem.

Against this backdrop, our new Working Paper Regulatory Approaches to Online Harms and Human Rights: Three Case Studies discusses how to best place human rights – particularly the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) – at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation on online harms.

Written by our Senior Research Fellow Dr Ana Beduschi and aimed at policy-makers and all those working on the regulation of online harms, it examines their regulation in three jurisdictions – Brazil, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK).

‘Many countries are currently developing new regulations for online harm. Our analysis precisely aims at supporting them in this endeavour’ underlines Felix Kirchmeier, Manager of Policy Studies at the Geneva Academy.

A Focus on the Right to Freedom of Expression Online

Via the three case studies, the author evaluates how different legislative proposals take human rights considerations into account – particularly the corporate responsibility to respect human rights embedded in the three pillars of the UNGPs – with a focus on the right to freedom of expression online.

‘In this paper, I investigate whether these legislative proposals in Brazil, the EU and in the UK put forward substantive or procedural rules, or both, and the key challenges and opportunities for each of these approaches. I also discuss whether there are potential reverse negative impacts for the protection of freedom of expression online’ explains Dr Beduschi.

No ‘One Size Fits All’ Approach for Online Harms Regulation

The analysis of the three case studies shows that legislative measures laying down substantive and process-oriented obligations for online platforms might support legal certainty. Nonetheless, paradoxically, depending on how these legal obligations are set, they may lead to potential violations of the very rights that they seek to protect.

‘Many challenges still lie ahead. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for online harms regulation. Still, there is a crucial need for legislative proposals to consider the effects they may have on the protection and respect of human rights’ underlines Dr Beduschi

Our Research on Disruptive Technologies and Rights-Based Resilience

This paper is part of our research on disruptive technologies and rights-based resilience – funded by the Geneva Science-Policy Interface and carried out in partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights B-Tech Project.

It will serve as a background paper for an online workshop in February 2022 that will address regulatory approaches to digital technologies and the UNGPs.

Prior outputs of the project include guidance on incorporating the protection and respect for human rights in the regulation of artificial intelligence as well as a paper that proposes solid and feasible pathways to ensure that artificial intelligence (AI) does not infringe upon human rights.


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