Online platforms as human rights arbiters

Politics & Society
re:publica 2016

Short thesis: 

Through the prism of online platforms, this presentation will examine challenges related to human rights protection in the online domain. This will include questions such as: what does human rights law (and soft law) say about private actors and their human rights responsibilities?; how have major internet companies taken up human rights in their discourse and practices?; what are some of the dynamics that work for or against a stronger human rights protection online?; and are the frameworks that currently govern the activities of these online platforms sufficient to provide the standards and mechanisms needed to protect and respect human rights online?


Online platforms play an increasingly important role as owners and managers of the online infrastructure and sociability. As such, they have the power to influence users’ human rights in ways conventionally reserved for governments. At the same time, human rights law is state-centric in nature, and holds no direct obligations for companies. When examining human rights protection in the online domain it therefore becomes paramount to explore the role, responsibilities and practices of these private actors vis-à-vis human rights standards and norms.

One area of concern has been the platforms’ impact on online freedom of expression and privacy. For example the taken-for-granted context of the "personal information economcy" and the day-to-day decisions on which content to remove or leave up. While several of the major platforms engage in industry initiatives to foster human rights, these discourses tend to focus primarily on treats from governments with less attention to the human rights challenges that derive from their own business practices. Scholars have warned of a governance gap, where private actors with strong human rights impacts steer in the soft regime of guidelines and self-regulation, with no direct human rights obligations.

The presentation will identify and discuss challenges related to human rights protection in privately governed spaces. In conclusion, it will argue that current responses are insufficient and new policy responses urgently needed. 


Stage 6
Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 10:00 to 10:30