UNESCO platform regulation guidelines: the troubled waters of a global model for Internet governance

Auriane van der Vaeren
August 7, 2023 | Report-backs

For many, the Internet is a place of daily wanderings. The Internet of today is no longer limited to computers, and our societies are steadily walking down the smart path, progressively expanding the world of things to the world of the Internet. The Internet-of-Things goes from smart phones, to smart TVs, to smart homes. But the smartening process in fact does not stop to 'things'. Indeed, seeking to secure a welfare state in a digital world, governments equally walk down the smart path by adopting the concepts of smart cities and smart governments. It is as such that contemporary governments contribute to the rise in available digital applications provided by an array of Internet service providers. Thus, encouraged by technology companies, states that seek to safeguard an international technological avant-garde position causes these states to continuously and incrementally (re)position the digital as an indispensability for all aspects of our social lives. States and businesses thus have a constructively interfering relation; pursuing the dream of an ever-smartening world allows states to have an ever-more pervasive government power and allows companies to create ever-more business opportunities, thereby also setting those companies in a historical position for they have access to tremendous amounts of user-generated data (e.g., AirAsia, Facebook, foodpanda, Line, WeChat, YouTube). Access to user-generated data is not only about better evidence-based governmental decision-making or about more business opportunities and data brokering activities. Access to user-generated data is importantly also about the power of curating content online—about the power of curating its distribution, monitoring its consumption, and making behavioural recommendations.

The reason underlying the upscaling interest of states to regulate (and govern) the digital space therefore becomes all the more apparent—an interest that is not foreign to the United Nations who launched the Global Digital Compact project to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”. In this frame, the UNESCO launched in September 2022 its programme Internet for Trust: Towards Guidelines for Regulating Digital Platforms. The key endpoint of this programme is to develop global guidelines for regulating digital platforms; to develop a set of global standards that states would use on which to model their own regulations administering digital platforms. The UNESCO guidelines are currently in their finalisation phase.

Irrespective of who drafts guidelines, they always come with a set of presuppositions that do not reflect the reality of certain contexts. But it is the responsibility of the drafter to hear what presuppositions lead the guidelines to cause more harm than good in certain contexts—a responsibility that is particularly true for the pretension at hand being the development of global guidelines.

Concerns were voiced during a panel at the Digital Rights Asia-Pacific 2023 (DRAPAC23) Assembly, held in Chiang Mai (Thailand) on May 22-26, 2566 (May 22-26, 2023), also attended by a UNESCO representative. The DRAPAC23 Assembly is the first of its kind in the region. And for a region that abounds with countries that have long histories of speech repression, the voices that unanimously expressed concern over the detrimental effects of the guidelines in the region were left once more unheard. Regional governments are known for abusing international law and international policy guidelines to further their interests and to legitimate their actions.


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Opening plenary of the DRAPAC23 Assembly, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2566 (2023) [Image credit: Auriane van der Vaeren]

The problem with the guidelines is that (i) they are based on the premise of an existing fair regulatory and government system and a just judicial power, and (ii) they presuppose the presence of a well-functioning network infrastructure. But this twofold does not hold for many countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia. Additionally, these countries already have laws that regulate freedom of expression online. Adding one more regulatory baseline is simply adding yet another tool in the government's toolbox to silence political dissent. Hence, while the guidelines seek to promote the notion of information as a public good through “[s]afeguarding freedom of expression and access to information”, these guidelines promote a conception of information and speech by dismissing an entire part of the world. The reality of the Global North is not that of the Global South. For instance, where the European Union has strong data privacy protection rules, transparency obligations, and media plurality safeguards, those safeguards are entirely absent in authoritarian regimes. Countries under the spell of such regimes do not have the regulatory baseline guardrails on which to fall back in case of abuse. There is therefore a certain paradoxical irony to the guidelines if thinking about how defending free expression would advance through veiling an entire part of that expression.

As such, this event brings to light the colonial reminiscence present in contemporary global enterprises. And not only does it expose the detrimental effects in the Global South. But perhaps more importantly it exposes the perpetuated harm caused by a world order that (chooses to) remain ignorant about other realities. This amounts to defending an oblivious form of free expression that is therefore not truly free. And it makes the guidelines as they currently are out of touch with an entire part of reality. Any set of guidelines will forever remain imperfect, but one cannot pretend not to know once one knows.

Knowing about present issue is not only about including the so far neglected voices into the discussions and about being attentive to their reality upon drafting the guidelines. It also requires us to reflect on the very contemporary practice of globalisation: is it possible for global causes, however noble, to apply to every single idiosyncratic context each having peculiar historical, cultural, societal, and political specificity? As the modernist mantra of the single epistème clearly does not hold in a world that is ever so complex, how would the current world order reshape if shifting its practices reminiscent of a colonial spirit to practices of humility? How would globalisation and the UNESCO Guidelines for Regulating Digital Platforms reshape if shifting its ‘knowledge politics’, if shifting its way of presenting things? Why not reach out to the ‘neglected things’, and engage in a speculative exploration of a caring world order, one that truly embraces free expression in its integrality?


Auriane van der Vaeren is Assistant Editor for Backchannels and currently an independent researcher located in Bangkok (Thailand) who looks into the incidence of technology and policy on the information society.

Published: 08/07/2023