The final version of UNESCO’s guidelines on how digital platforms – and in particular social media – should work offers helpful affirmation of the importance of access to information, skills, and libraries. It also provides a framework for us to engage in wider debates about information regulation.

UNESCO has released its Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms, the result of a year’s work involving a wide variety of stakeholders, including the Internet4Trust conference in February which attracted over 4000 participants.

At a time of growing interest at all levels of government in acting to regulate the way that the internet works, and in particular social media platforms. These have both opened up new ways to communicate, but also underlined that human rights can sometimes be in conflict with each other, and finding the right balance requires effort and thought.

In particular, the sharing of mis- and disinformation, as well as hate-speech, certainly counts as expression, but can easily come at the expense of other rights, such as to non-discrimination and security. The operation of platforms also raises questions about privacy and beyond.

Libraries have a long experience of both reflection and action around gathering, organising, and giving access to information, and – even if not always explicitly – have addressed many of these questions in their own work. Today, with the role of platforms so central in providing access to information more broadly, the way they work is a fundamental question for our institutions in general.

This article therefore gives you an overview of what is in the Guidelines, what it means for libraries, and what we can do about it.

Front cover of the UNESCO Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms. Title in black on a green background. Image: cartoon of a laptop with a globe on the screen, and four characters working on it as if it was a building site.What’s in the guidelines?

At the heart of the Guidelines are a set of five principles but before these, there is some important framing.

Right at the start, the Guidelines underline that they take as a starting point that the internet is – or at least has the potential to be – a major contributor to sustainable development and the enjoyment of rights. Similarly, it underlines the importance of the rights of access to information and expression as values to be protected as far as possible.

They also underline a belief in a multi-stakeholder approach, with all of governments, platforms themselves, intergovernmental organisations and wider society (including researchers, civil society organisations, media and people in general) having a role.

They talk about the idea of governance, rather than government, with interactions between actors, checks and balances and efforts to coordinate between countries in order not to have rules that are too different. This, the Guidelines warn, could lead to internet fragmentation.

Crucially, this also sets out how the Guidelines are supposed to be used – as guidance for governments in the actions they take, as a steer for platforms themselves, and as a reference point for researchers, civil society and media. Through these, it is hoped, we can also tackle risks of internet fragmentation.

Finally, before getting in to the principles, the Guidelines underline the need to build media and information literacy (MIL) skills, stressing both that platforms should support MIL, but also be designed in ways that incorporates MIL principles in order to avoid negative outcomes.

The five principles are then:

  1. Platforms should conduct human rights due diligence – this should take place in general and before any major changes, and incorporate a full variety of perspectives.
  2. Platforms should adhere to international human rights standards, including in platform design, content moderation and content curation – this should involve non-discrimination by design, moderation in local languages (as well as support for moderators, who otherwise can have a terrible job), a variety of responses to harmful content, auditing processes, avoiding promoting content that would generally be seen as illegal.
  3. Platforms should be transparent – crucial to achieving the above is transparency, both in terms of setting out terms of service, and showing clearly how platforms comply with them. This covers everything from moderation, advertising, complaints and appeals, safeguards for freedom of expression, and ensuring access to data for researchers, civil society and media
  4. Platforms should make information and tools available for users – this refers to ensuring that users understand processes and their rights, in particular in their own language.
  5. Platforms should be accountable to relevant stakeholders – there should be effective complaints mechanisms that take account of local needs.

Finally, there are some specific provisions around how to protect people in situations of vulnerability, the role of platforms around elections, and how platforms should act in times of crisis.

What’s relevant for libraries?

As highlighted above, the Guidelines are fundamentally about how to regulate flows of information, and so are of both professional and practical interest for libraries.

A first key positive is the emphasis on the importance of the right of access to information. As the Guidelines note, ‘Information empowers citizens to exercise their fundamental rights, supports gender equality, and allows for participation and trust in democratic governance and sustainable development, leaving no one behind’.

Indeed, a key argument for having a document like this is that concerns about mis- and disinformation and hate speech can too often push governments (and through them, companies) in the direction of over-restriction. We have seen plenty of examples of ‘fake news’ being used as an excuse to shut down voices.

A second is the focus on building skills. While it is right not to place the full responsibility of dealing with fake news on users themselves, developing MIL brings a wide variety of benefits, and it is important that the resources of platforms can be harnessed. Importantly, the Guidelines underline that platform efforts should be coordinated with wider strategies, a priority point for libraries. They also stress that MIL needs to be positive – not just about warning people about dangers, but also about building confidence in using the internet to the full.

A third positive is that the Guidelines are cautious about the use of automated filtering. We have seen, in particular in discussions about copyright in Europe, big claims (often by companies selling filtering tools) about what they can do, but also many concerns about over-blocking.

Fourth, and linked to this, the Guidelines are also clear about making sure that there are measures in place to safeguard freedom of expression and access to information. Indeed, they stress that this too should be audited as part of wider checks on whether processes are working. Similarly, it opposes the idea of general monitoring obligations – i.e. it should never be the case that platforms need to vet everything that is uploaded to them by users.

Fifth, it is very positive that feedback around the importance of preserving content has been taken into account. Calls to delete dangerous content too often ignore the value of this both for law enforcement in the short term, and research in the longer term. The Guidelines stress that care needs to be taken in order not to jeopardise these efforts.

Sixth, it is welcome that the Guidelines have taken on board comments focused on the need to avoid internet fragmentation through too great a diversity of regulation. There is a risk, otherwise, that companies simply avoid working beyond national or regional borders given the complexity and cost of doing so, something that ultimately makes access to information harder.

Finally, and importantly, there is the role given to libraries. Our institutions are seen as being crucial players in the wider framework of building MIL skills, as well as the broader empowerment of people when using the internet.

Areas for improvement

There are nonetheless some areas where the Guidelines could be better, and where we will need to pay attention in any work to implement them.

A first issue is around definitions. While the foreword from the UNESCO Director General (like the wider debate) focuses very much on social media, the Guidelines as a whole use the looser term ‘digital platforms’, without providing a definition of what these are.

Linked to this is the approach to what does or does not fall under the scope of the Guidelines. While it is a positive that there is a focus on proportionality – i.e. there should be tougher rules for bigger platforms that carry more risk – UNESCO unfortunately did not take on board calls (including from IFLA) to make clear that scientific and open education repositories should be clearly excluded.

This is a problem, as we see legislation in different parts of the world including such repositories in their scope, often by accident, creating potentially major burdens for key digital public infrastructures.

A further concern, although one which is perhaps unavoidable, is the fact that we are working in a world where there are differing levels of confidence (and reason to be confident) in the ability of companies and governments to uphold rights.

This means that it is very hard to strike a universal balance between the respective roles of businesses and public authorities. In some settings, private platforms may offer a crucial means of enjoying free speech that would otherwise be impossible, whereas elsewhere, they are seen as restricting it. Similarly, the ability of the media and civil society to hold platforms and governments to account varies.

Finding a solution to this requires more than just a set of Guidelines, clearly. However, it does mean that there needs to be awareness of the risks when implementing them.

What next?

At the international level, the next key moment in the process of decision-making about information flows is likely to be the Global Digital Compact, due to be approved in 2024. This will look more at the overall architecture of internet governance, but inevitably as part of this influence information regulation.

Nationally, we are likely to see greater or lesser references to the Guidelines in discussions and laws going forwards. These are of course likely to be done in a way that supports whatever approach or policy is being proposed, but this offers an opportunity – especially where there is inadequate consideration of the role of libraries or access to information in general – to engage.

For libraries itself, it is a further invitation to reflect on our systemic role in building skills. While there is plenty of work at the level of individual libraries and systems to look at this, the Guidelines underline that we should also be at the table when decisions are being taken nationally.

Finally, the Guidelines provide a structure and reference for wider discussions about how information is shared, organised, accessed and used today. These discussions, as set out at the beginning, are not only highly relevant for our ability to fulfil our missions, but at also ones where we have real experience and insights to offer.

You should therefore feel ready to refer to the Guidelines, both in your work with UNESCO National Commissions and offices, as well as in your wider engagement in policy-making in this space.

Interested in getting more involved in our work on internet governance? See our work to update our Internet Manifesto for more!