by Michael Krieger
September 25, 2015
The United Nations has disgraced
itself immeasurably over the past month or so.
In case you missed the following stories, I suggest catching up now:
Fresh off the scene from those two epic
embarrassments, the UN now wants to tell governments of the world
how to censor the internet. I wish I was kidding.
On Thursday, the organization's
Broadband Commission for Digital Development released a damning
"world-wide wake-up call" on what it calls "cyber VAWG," or
violence against women and girls.
The report concludes that online
harassment is "a problem of pandemic proportion" - which, nbd,
we've all heard before.
But the United Nations then goes on to propose radical,
proactive policy changes for both governments and social
networks, effectively projecting a whole new vision for how the
Internet could work.
Under U.S. law - the law that, not coincidentally, governs most
of the world's largest online platforms - intermediaries such as
Twitter and Facebook generally can't be held responsible for
what people do on them.
But the United Nations proposes both
that social networks proactively police every profile and post,
and that government agencies only "license" those who agree to
People are being harassed online, and
the solution is to censor everything and license speech?
How that would actually work, we
don't know; the report is light on concrete, actionable policy.
But it repeatedly suggests both that
social networks need to opt-in to stronger anti-harassment
regimes and that governments need to enforce them proactively.
At one point toward the end of the paper, the U.N. panel
"political and governmental
bodies need to use their licensing prerogative" to better
protect human and women's rights, only granting licenses to
"those Telecoms and search engines" that "supervise content
and its dissemination."
So we're supposed to be lectured about
human rights from an organization that named Saudi Arabia head of
its human rights panel...? Got it...
Regardless of whether you think
those are worthwhile ends, the implications are huge:
It's an attempt to transform the
Web from a libertarian free-for-all to some kind of enforced
This U.N. report gets us no closer,
alas: all but its most modest proposals are unfeasible.
We can educate people about gender
violence or teach "digital citizenship" in schools, but
persuading social networks to police everything their users post
is next to impossible.
And even if it weren't, there are
serious implications for innovation and speech:
According to the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, CDA 230 - the law that
exempts online intermediaries from this kind of policing -
is basically what allowed modern social networks (and blogs,
and comments, and forums, etc.) to come into being.
If we're lucky, perhaps the Saudi
religious police chief (yes, they have one) who went on a
rampage against Twitter a couple of
years ago, will be available to head up the project.
What a joke...