Council of Europe adopts human rights framework for social media and search engines

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has announced that it will adopt two sets of recommendations that favour human rights approaches for search engines and social media platforms.

In Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)3, the Committee has adopted a series of impressive-sounding policies that recognise the growing importance of search engines, and the need to make sure that these tools do not threaten fundamental freedoms. The Recommendation reads:

“The Committee of Ministers therefore, under the terms of Article 15.bof the Statute of the Council of Europe, recommends that member States, in consultation with private sector actors and civil society, develop and promote coherent strategies to protect freedom of expression, access to information and other human rights and fundamental freedoms in relation to search engines in line with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ETS No. 5, hereinafter referred to as the “Convention”), especially Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) and Article 10 (Freedom of expression) and with the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (ETS No. 108, hereafter referred to as “Convention No. 108”), in particular by engaging with search engine providers to carry out the following actions:

– enhance transparency regarding the way in which access to information is provided, in order to ensure access to, and pluralism and diversity of, information and services, in particular the criteria according to which search results are selected, ranked or removed;

– review search ranking and indexing of content which, although in the public space, is not intended for mass communication (or for mass communication in aggregate). This could include listing content sufficiently low in search results so as to strike a balance between the accessibility of the content in question and the intentions or wishes of its producer (for example having different accessibility levels to content which is published seeking broad dissemination as compared to content which is merely available in a public space). Default settings should be conceived taking account of this objective;

– enhance transparency in the collection of personal data and the legitimate purposes for which they are being processed;

– enable users to access easily, and, where appropriate, to correct or delete their personal data processed by search engine providers;

– develop tools to minimise the collection and processing of personal data, including enforcing limited retention periods, adequate irreversible anonymisation, as well as tools for the deletion of data;

– ensure accessibility to their services to people with disabilities, thereby enhancing their integration and full participation in society.”

Similarly, in Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)4 the Committee proposes a similar approach for social media, recognsising that they are increasingly relevant in everyday life, and that human rights might under threat. The Recommendation reads:

“The Committee of Ministers, under the terms of Article 15.bof the Statute of the Council of Europe, recommends that member States, in consultation with private sector actors and civil society, develop and promote coherent strategies to protect and promote respect for human rights with regard to social networking services, in line with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ETS No. 5, hereinafter referred to as “the European Convention on Human Rights”), especially Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life), Article 10 (Freedom of expression) and Article 11 (Freedom of assembly and association) and with the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (ETS No. 108), in particular by engaging with social networking providers to carry out the following actions:

provide an environment for users of social networks that allows them further to exercise their rights and freedoms;

raise users’ awareness, by means of clear and understandable language, of the possible challenges to their human rights and the ways to avoid having a negative impact on other people’s rights when using these services;

protect users from harm without limiting freedom of expression and access to information;

enhance transparency about data processing, and refraining from illegitimate processing of personal data;

set up self- and co-regulatory mechanisms where appropriate, in order to contribute to the respect of the objectives set out in the appendix to this recommendation;

ensure accessibility to their services to people with disabilities, thereby enhancing their integration and full participation in society.”

Recommendations like these are laudable and noteworthy, but unfortunately technology giants like Google and Facebook have become so big that they can simply ignore such important statements. Recommendations should be backed up with regulation, and not simple calls for governments to do something about potential threats. Nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction.

Forgive the platitudes, it is difficult not to sound like this when talking about human rights.

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