A rising tide of disinformation and hate speech online is spanning the globe. To reduce the spread, regulations have been proposed by governments and some in the tech industry. But what happens if these new policies, when enacted, harm freedom of expression?
In an interconnected world, the issue is complex. One policy change in Europe could influence nations across the Atlantic, and vice versa. A new working group launched by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) is tackling the topic head-on.
Under the leadership of the APPC, the Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression has gathered leaders in politics, academia, business, technology, and civil society to examine existing and proposed policies and identify best practices in reducing hate speech, violent extremism, and viral deception online, all while protecting free speech and a vibrant global internet. Partners in the project include the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam and The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
“Rather than engage these issues after a regulatory framework has been implemented, it makes sense for concerned, knowledgeable individuals to enter the dialogue as it is emerging,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the APPC’s director. “The working group hopes to help inform discussions about how best to address the complexities of the digital age without creating unintended consequences that might, for example, empower autocratic regimes.”
The Transatlantic Working Group (TWG), which officially launched in February, had its first series of meetings last month at Ditchley Park in England.
“It was an exhilarating session,” notes Susan Ness, director of the TWG and a former commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission. “Members were at once exhausted and energized by the quality and depth of discussion. The insights of the group validated our underlying premise—by engaging leaders from both sides of the Atlantic with expertise in law, technology, and business, frameworks can be identified to address harmful conduct online without chilling freedom of expression.”
The group’s 28 members, equally from Europe and North America, focused, first, on what freedom of expression means on the two continents—how it differs and how it’s the same. Then they did a deep dive on a variety of laws, regulations, and initiatives that seek to reduce hate speech and violent extremism online. Areas explored involved the German NetzDG law, European proposed regulation on terrorist content, the European Commission’s Code of Conduct countering illegal hate speech, and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’s hash-sharing database. The TWG also began to explore models for moderating social media content.
“Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankees player, is known for his ultimate wisdom. His saying, ‘You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there’ is, for me, a great inspiration while being involved in this project,” says Nico van Eijk, director of IViR. “There is a lot of emotion around the topic of content moderation, and the recommendations of the working group should help to focus on freedom of expression as a design prerequisite when developing policies and regulation.
“Also,” he adds, “underlining transparency and the need for empirical proof should result in a more balanced approach while at the same time respecting the different European and American ecosystems.”
It was with that intent, says Jamieson, that the TWG be balanced in terms of the representation of those involved, as well as sources of funding and support.
“The working group is genuinely transnational,” says Jamieson.
The TWG includes members from diverse backgrounds who are recognized as influential voices in their fields. Among them: Michael Chertoff, the second U.S. secretary of homeland security; Toomas Ilves, a former president of Estonia; Eileen Donahoe, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission; Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation; and Damian Collins, the U.K. Parliament member who chaired its investigation of Facebook.
“Having people from these backgrounds in the room increases the likelihood that everyone is able to look around the corner at what happens if you do ‘X’ and how that might affect ‘Y,’” says Jamieson. “These are highly experienced individuals who have been involved at very high levels of either studying or implementing decisions that are analogous to the ones that democracies are confronting now.”
Jamieson says the TWG fits within the APPC’s Institutions of Democracy arm, which has a goal of improving the dialogue of democracy. But, as always with APPC, the center seeks to get Penn students involved, too.
“One of our missions is improving the dialogue of democracy, and another is increasing the capacity of our graduates to improve the dialogue of democracy,” she says. “We do that by involving them in our projects. That’s what great universities do—they empower their students to become their graduates who go out and change the world.”
Douglas Guilbeault, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, studies computational social science, and made the perfect fit for this project, notes Jamieson.
Guilbeault, who is set to graduate next year, traveled to Ditchley Park with the TWG, after helping to conduct background research on the issues.
“It was a really intense conference,” he says. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to be part of those conversations and really get a sense for the conceptual work that people are doing to address these issues.
“The policy issues they are raising—how to regulate content online, the implications of ‘fake news,’ and disinformation—all of that is extremely concerning for governments, but also extremely challenging for governments,” Guilbeault notes. “The problem is all the more complicated when countries impose regulations independently of each other.”
It’s a sense that, if one country imposes a regulation on a company, for instance, it will, naturally, have consequences for how the company operates in other countries.
“The idea that there is a lack of communication or coordination across countries is really frightening,” he says.
The Working Group is gearing up for another session in southern California in May, followed by a roundtable on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “They will mainly focus this time on viral deception and on intermediary liability,” says Ness.
The goal after each set of meetings is to continue the conversations with the public. So far, Ness says, Working Group members have held roundtables and public forums in Warsaw and Brussels, talking with stakeholders, journalists, companies, and folks involved in human rights work. More than 650 people joined the Warsaw session online.
Come March 2020, Ness expects the group to wind down and publish a final report.
“With the approaching European Parliamentary and U.S. elections, the political demand for regulation is intensifying,” she says. “We hope to bring insights formed by far-reaching transatlantic discussion so that online issues may be addressed without harming freedom of expression, which is fundamental to democracy.”
Photos by Silver Apples Photography.