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The Right Way to Regulate Digital Harms

From terrorist propaganda to election disinformation, toxic content spreads farther faster than ever, thanks to online platforms. Addressing this problem, without crushing freedom of expression, requires clear and comprehensive regulatory approaches, based on human-rights principles.

WASHINGTON, DC – As the European Commission’s recent Digital Services Act demonstrates, lawmakers around the world are scrambling, with good reason, to address the extremism, disinformation, and manipulation that have consumed the digital ecosystem, distorted public discourse, and deepened polarization in recent years. And yet their efforts carry risks. Just as rules governing online domains can bolster democracy by promoting inclusive, informed debate, they can also be abused to inhibit freedom of expression.

Fortunately, international human rights law offers a set of principles that can guide regulation in a way that addresses toxic content while promoting freedom of expression. To help illuminate this process, our organization, the Global Network Initiative (GNI), recently brought together experts from across industry and the human-rights community to examine scores of content-regulation initiatives in more than a dozen countries, and provide relevant recommendations.

The first human-rights principle that must be applied is “legality,” which emphasizes the need for clear definitions adopted by democratic processes. Such definitions are missing in Tanzania, for example, which instead has rules barring online content that “promotes annoyance,” among other vague harms. If it is not clear what content is and is not allowed, governments seek to maximize their power to restrict speech; users cannot know what constitutes lawful conduct; and courts and companies struggle to enforce the rules fairly.