CELE at World Press Freedom Day: UNESCO is improving its draft on platform regulation, but more work is needed to enhance the process


On May 1st, UNESCO hosted the second in-person consultation for UNESCO’s proposed guidelines for platform regulation. Agustina Del Campo, CELE’s Director, joined the talks in New York. The event was held as part of the celebrations scheduled at the United Nations Headquarters for World Press Freedom Day (on May 3rd).

The consultation marked the second international, multi-stakeholder event led by UNESCO to discuss concrete regulatory guidelines to hold companies accountable for harmful speech. According to UNESCO, the guidelines aim to “support regulators, governments, legislatures, and companies dealing with content that potentially damages human rights and democracy while protecting freedom of expression and the availability of accurate and reliable information.”

CELE participated in preliminary discussions of these guidelines, providing feedback on the first iterations of the draft and submitting written comments in the two formal consultations in January and March 2023, respectively. Additionally, we participated in the Internet for Trust Conference held in Paris on February 21-23.

A welcome breakthrough

The latest version of the draft guidelines, published on April 27th, constitutes a significant improvement in this regard, as mentions of vague and overly broad concepts such as “content that risks significant harm to democracy” or “harmful” and “toxic” content have been eliminated or significantly reduced.

In our submissions and interventions, we emphasized the need for more nuanced and structured discussions around key concepts contained in previous versions of the proposals that were too vague and broad and were therefore incompatible with international freedom of expression standards. This was, in fact, the consensus among the many experts that gathered in Paris, including current and former rapporteurs for freedom of expression within the universal and regional systems.

Consequently, we welcome this remarkable improvement and call upon UNESCO to keep upholding human rights standards such as the three-part test and to consider human rights best practices such as the Rabat Action Plan when discussing concepts that could become the basis of limitations to freedom of expression.

Still room for improvement

Regardless of these improvements, the proposal and the conversation in general, are not dedicating enough time and energy to addressing important contextual political and social aspects that are essential for the quality of public debate and to fend off risks for democracy. Among those, we would like to reiterate the need for comprehensive approaches capable of strengthening democratic institutions, fostering accountability of public servants and officials, emphasizing their role in public discourse and access to information, and promoting and strengthening media ethics in addition to internet platforms’ transparency and accountability.

It is still unclear whether the guidelines are intended to promote regulatory efforts among states or rather provide a framework that states should follow if and when thinking of regulation. Regardless of where this discussion ends, rule of law conditions among different countries that do intend to regulate social media platforms remain an important concern and challenge.  The OAS Special Rapporteur already raised this issue in Paris. In light of these concerns, CELE suggested that the guidelines could include a recommendation for states to conduct human rights impact assessments for regulatory proposals and to conduct periodic «performance» evaluations to test how the application of existing regulatory measures impact (positively or negatively) the enjoyment of fundamental rights. 

Moreover, it had also been suggested among experts that UNESCO could subject the definitive version of the guidelines themselves to a human rights impact assessment, in order to ensure that the guidelines do not unintentionally violate human rights. 

We believe that these two are valuable suggestions that UNESCO should seriously consider. By taking this step, UNESCO would be demonstrating its commitment to upholding human rights and ensuring that its policies and guidelines are fit for purpose.

We will keep engaging with this process and will keep you updated about our interventions.