The UN's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, says supporting platforms or companies in pushing back against authoritarian control is a key part of protecting and promoting digital participation.
What does digital participation mean to you?
David Kay: I think of digital participation in different ways. It’s the ability and capacity of any individual not only to access online space, but also to participate in online debate and express themselves through online forums and the like. Thinking about digital participation from that perspective helps you frame the threats to it. Those threats are coming from authoritarian regimes, where people are being punished for their mere participation in digital forums. They’re also coming from the platforms themselves, which are not necessarily restricting digital participation out of any nefarious motivation, but because they have rules that are opaque and don't necessarily consider the nature of platform usage. Digital participation should also include the ability to help shape the rules for that participation – a kind of democratic digital participation which, in large measure, we don't have today.
What is the most pressing issue today in terms of digital participation?
Democratic states need to find ways to support platform companies in their ability and willingness to push back against authoritarian regimes. A lot of platforms go into authoritarian places, such as Turkey or Egypt, where they encounter pressure to take down content. They don't want to do this, since it's inconsistent with their standards and their understanding of human rights and digital participation. They need the support of democratic countries in pushing back. At the same time, the platforms themselves need to find ways to involve their users and civil society more in designing the rules of the platform.
How can you engage civil society more in this process, when it is controlled by the powerful?
It's very difficult. How do you reach out to civil society in a way that is representative, but is also protective of people? We often face that in Special Procedures in the UN: I could go to a country to meet with a civil society leader, and if the government learns of it, that person might face ramifications or reprisals. Companies face the same dynamic when they reach out to civil society.
What is the role of the media and what can it do to help foster digital participation?
The ability to engage in an independent media forum – not social media, but traditional media – in some places, it’s everything. Clearly, the media should be pushing back against the platforms in their colonization of independent media. States should be finding ways to support independent voices and outlets more, by providing funding or by refusing to adopt rules against disinformation that could undermine independent media. It also includes media literacy, namely the kinds of projects that DW Akademie engage in, such as teaching people what it means to have an independent media and to do investigative journalism, which is itself under threat in so many parts of the world.
With so many non-journalists fulfilling the function of a journalist, do you have a definition for what constitutes a journalist, or what constitutes the media?
No, I don't, but this is a big debate about social media: Are they publishers or are they just neutral conduits? In some ways, that’s an interesting debate, but from the human rights perspective, I’m not really interested in defining “who is a journalist?” or “what is the media?” because in human rights law, everyone enjoys the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. The people doing the work of journalism aren’t just professional journalists, but a broader range of individuals – such as human rights NGOs or researchers who do long-form reporting on their work. I want us to support what we think of traditionally as ‘the media,’ but we should also support independent voices who might be independent individuals doing this kind of work.
David Kaye is the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. He teaches at the Irvine Law School at the University of California and has researched and written widely on international human rights law and rights abuses.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer