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Photo by Tebibyte CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Tebibyte CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Web Foundation calls on legislators to require greater human rights transparency from tech companies

Web Foundation · November 7, 2019

Adrian Lovett, President and CEO of the Web Foundation, will today give witness at the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News in Dublin, Ireland, where he will call on legislators to require companies to publish regular human rights impact assessments and transparency reports. The Grand Committee is a cross-parliamentary committee on internet regulation focused on the issues of misinformation and disinformation. Read Adrian’s opening statement, which will be given during the session on international collaboration, below.

I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to present the World Wide Web Foundation’s views on this important topic.

The Web Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to promote and defend the web as a basic right and public good, for everyone. We work to achieve this mission by securing policy change, based on evidence and robust research.

Today, I will outline some of the challenges to international cooperation around disinformation and misinformation, and provide some concrete recommendations.

If there’s one thing I’d ask you to take back home from Dublin, we believe that a crucial first step is for lawmakers like yourselves to require companies to publish regular human rights impact assessments and transparency reports.

That means companies will be expected to tell us how they’ve weighed the impact of their policies and products on individual human rights, and on our societies.

These reports should be grounded in international human rights frameworks, and focus on disinformation and misinformation, hate speech, electoral interference, and political ads.

Human rights impact assessments and transparency reports have become more prevalent and systematic in other sectors such as extractives, manufacturing, and agriculture. Some tech companies have already started to publish transparency reports– and we think this can go further. 

The more we learn about how companies make these decisions, the more informed and empowered governments will be to regulate effectively in this area.

The challenges

But before I speak in more detail about this recommendation, let me step back for a moment: When Sir Tim invented the World Wide Web in 1989 he changed the world– expanding our access to knowledge and freedom of expression more than any other development in modern times.

But in recent years, we’ve seen the web misused to spread lies and hatred and sow division within our communities. It’s a complex dynamic, and tackling it will demand a complex set of policies, and long-term thinking.

As public representatives, you are faced with a difficult balancing act: the need to respond swiftly to the harms caused to your constituents by disinformation, with the responsibility to uphold people’s human rights and freedom of expression and avoid triggering unintended harms.

There are numerous challenges facing international cooperation around disinformation:

Like the web itself, the platforms where much of the disinformation is spread operate globally, but national laws vary and sometimes diverge.

Platforms struggle to fact check content consistently at a global scale.

And while platforms are making decisions that impact billions of lives globally, we have not had real insight into how those decisions are made.


But there is hope– there are ways we can come together now and in the future to address these challenges.

Last year, Sir Tim announced the creation of the Contract for the Web. This social contract brings together governments, companies and civil society to agree on a set of ground rules to guide digital policy agendas.

More than 350 organisations have been part of the process so far, and Sir Tim will launch the final version of the Contract later this month at the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin.

As part of this broad plan to protect and secure the web as a public good, one of the specific things that the Web Foundation has  been keen to see as part of the Contract for the Web is an increased commitment to transparency around risk assessments by companies.

While transparency is not, and should not, be the end of the road, it is an essential first step that supports evidence-based regulation and enforcement

So, in the spirit of the Contract for the Web, we are calling on companies to publish regular transparency reports that tell us how they’ve weighed the impact of their policies and products on human rights when it comes to misinformation and disinformation. 

And we call on national parliaments around the world to take this first step by requiring platforms to publish regular human rights impact assessments.

These reports may well demonstrate the trade-offs involved in making these decisions– for example, a policy to take down certain types of content may prevent some harms, but will also impact the right to free expression.  Policymakers and citizens may agree those are fair trade-offs. Or they may not. At the moment, they have no means to make a judgement.

Transparency is a first step, but it’s not the last. Governments will still need to do more work to effectively regulate disinformation beyond transparency measures– among others, these measures could include:

  • Establishing new regulatory agencies or strengthening the resources of existing regulators to tackle these issues
  • Prohibiting the use of micro-targeting for political ads— so we all see the same advertisements, just as we do on television, in newspapers and on billboards. This week, the Web Foundation is collaborating with the Mozilla Foundation and others to call on Facebook and Google to stop political and issue-based advertising in the UK during the current UK election cycle. We agree this is a necessary trade-off given the risks involved.  
  • Passing comprehensive data protection laws to ensure that companies are appropriately checked in their ability to collect and use data for targeted advertising.

Humanity needs global networks of information to solve a broad array of challenges that are crucial to our continued existence. I hope this Committee is the beginning of a process towards stronger and more effective global governance, and we at the Web Foundation would be happy to continue to engage with the Committee as we fight for the web we want.

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