(New York) – The growing role of major technology companies in moderating online content poses a risk to free expression and other fundamental rights, 15 human rights and digital rights organizations said today in a letter to Nick Rasmussen, the new executive director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT).
The rights groups expressed concern that government participation in the new Independent Advisory Committee of the forum, which includes the world’s biggest social media platforms, increased risks of extra-legal censorship. The groups also criticized the forum’s persistent lack of transparency and its insufficient focus on the protection of human rights, an essential component of countering terrorism. They warned that the forum’s structure marginalizes civil society participation.
“Blocking and other forms of content moderation are fast becoming the tool of choice for policymakers and companies to counter terrorism online,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “GIFCT should robustly engage with civil society groups to ensure that measures aimed at keeping the world safe don’t trample people’s rights.”
GIFCT is an industry-led and funded initiative whose members include Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Dropbox, Amazon, LinkedIn, Mega.nz, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It was founded in 2017 to “[p]revent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.”
Evidence suggests that forum members’ efforts to block or limit online dissemination of material they classify as “terrorist and violent extremist,” including through the use of machine-learning algorithms, have resulted in the removal of content opposing terrorism, as well as satire, media reports, and other content that constitutes legitimate free speech under international law, the groups said. They also raised concerns that blocked or otherwise moderated content includes documentation of human rights abuses, which has been rapidly disappearing from social media sites, especially in predominantly Arabic-speaking and Muslim countries. Removal of such content could obstruct victims’ rights to obtain justice.
The groups asked to meet with Rasmussen to discuss these concerns as well as his vision for the forum.
The letter was signed by:
Association for Progressive Communications
Center for Democracy & Technology
Committee to Protect Journalists
Dangerous Speech Project
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Ranking Digital Rights
Rights and Security International