Freedom of Expression


 SRFOE visited Internet companies and organizations to discuss human rights and technology practices 

March 31, 2023    

Washington D.C. - On March 2 and 3, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFOE) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited internet companies and organizations based in the San Francisco area (USA), to discuss and gather information regarding their policies and practices on human rights and technology. 

The visit was led by the Special Rapporteur, Pedro Vaca Villarreal together with representatives of the States of Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay, since another goal of visit was also to strengthen OAS Member States’ capacities to respond to current challenges on human rights and digital technologies. The Office of the Special Rapporteur welcomes the interest and commitment of Member States in maintaining an open dialogue on these issues. 

This initiative takes place in a pivotal moment for the advance of human rights online. In the Americas, and elsewhere in the globe, States and other relevant actors are engaging in discussions around the need to protect human rights online and advance standards that guide state actions and industry practices on issues such as content moderation, digital literacy, and the protecting public debate. In this line, the visit follows up on the discussions held by OAS Member States in the 2022 IX Summit of the Americas, which resulted in the Regional Agenda for Digital Transformation. The visit also responds to the mandate given to the Office of the Special Rapporteur by the OAS General Assembly in 2022 through the Resolution on "Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Online", to prepare a report on digital literacy and content moderation. Moreover, the visit is inserted in the ongoing SRFOE-led Americas Dialogue on freedom of expression online, which seeks to encourage a multistakeholder, open, and informed discussion on the promotion and protection of fundamental freedoms on the Internet. 

During the visit, the delegation went to the headquarters of organizations and social media platforms that play a relevant role on today’s public debate online, including Twitter, Meta, Google, Internet Archive, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and TikTok. During the meetings, the Special Rapporteur underlined the need to expand the democratic culture and mechanisms for the protection of human rights online, explaining some of the main obstacles and even setbacks observed around freedom of expression on the Internet. Discussions delved into the challenges posed by the use of artificial intelligence for social media content and of content moderation systems, which could put freedoms at risk, and exacerbate pre-existing social tensions and power disparities of the different actors involved in Internet governance. This Office recognizes and values the willingness and openness of the companies and organizations in the dialogue held during these meetings.  

Throughout the two-day visit, Member States’ representatives were also able to share some of their concerns regarding private practices of content moderation; they also underscored the growing use and benefits of the Internet and digital platforms for democracy and public management. Shared concerns among States were the different challenges during electoral contexts. On this issue, States’ representatives reflected on the unforeseen consequences of State-led and private responses to tackle online disinformation during such times and urged the SRFOE to facilitate more spaces to dialogue on these issues and to accompany States in discussions at the legislative and public policy levels that may have an impact on freedom of expression online. On this regard, the Special Rapporteur called on platforms to align practices in accordance with human rights guidelines and for both companies and public authorities to observe Inter-American standards on freedom of expression when adopting decisions that impact the circulation of online content, including during electoral contexts. 

During the different meetings, one the topics that emerged in conversations with States, companies, and organizations, was the responsibility of public leaders in their speech, online and offline, and the stemming challenges of speeches that might be stigmatizing or permissive of violence and discrimination or have an impact on journalistic work and the free expression of women online.  
Finally, the Special Rapporteur underscored the challenges of digital literacy and inclusion in the hemisphere, especially for the most vulnerable populations, such as those living in rural or remote areas, indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQIA+, racialized people, and people in socioeconomic vulnerability. In this line, Special Rapporteur Vaca highlighted the need to promote the participation, diversity, and openness in the deliberations of public interest and to overcome the barriers that may affect the possibility of connecting to networks, devices, and applications, or that have an impact in accessing information and consuming online content in a critical and informed manner.   

Visits to headquarters  

 The delegation visited the headquarters of organizations and social media platforms that play a relevant role on today’s public debate online, including Twitter, Meta, Google, Internet Archive, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and TikTok. Below are some of the specific topics and policies addressed in each one. 

At Twitter, the Office of the Special Rapporteur received information on recent initiatives promoted by the company to strengthen trust and reliability of information, such as the deployment of Community Notes. Finally, Twitter representatives expressed concern about the growing number of actors demanding that platforms remove content under broad and unclear definitions and the need for greater transparency from governments about such requests. They also argued that demands to curb illegal content must adhere to human rights regulatory frameworks and respect the fundamental purposes of freedom of expression. 

During the visit to Internet Archive, where meetings with Wikimedia and Creative Commons also took place, the organizations highlighted the importance of decentralization in Internet governance. The Internet Archive representatives highlighted its mission to ensure universal access to knowledge and the public interest nature of its practices of making available digitized materials, including websites, applications, software games, music, movies, videos, moving images, and millions of books. In addition, they highlighted the centrality of their library in fostering access to information in the event of removal of online content resulting from non-compliance with freedom of expression standards.  

Regarding Wikimedia, representatives explained how the platform proposes to promote free knowledge through community content management carried out by volunteers. They emphasized the importance of platform transparency, expressing concern about the emergence of legislative proposals for content moderation that prevent the existence of alternative platform models, such as Wikipedia, by establishing requirements that exclude the possibility of the development and application of content policies by the community.   

On the other hand, different areas of Google had a fruitful dialogue with the SRFOE delegation and government representatives, and shared presentations on its principles for the development of artificial intelligence and its use in the company's different products, as well as its approach to human rights and internet, content moderation, disinformation, the Google News Initiative program, and YouTube content policies.  

At Meta's headquarters, specialists highlighted how human rights guide the company's work, from the development and implementation of its policies to its products, with the aim of preserving people's freedom of expression in a safe and equitable space. Representatives also detailed how the company's corporate human rights policy is aligned with international human rights laws and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).  

TikTok's Trust and Safety team shared remarks on how their content moderation systems work. In this regard, they invited the Office of the Special Rapporteur to their Transparency and Accountability Center, where they offered an interactive decision-making experience in hypothetical cases of potential violations of the platform's policies. The company representatives also presented part of the code for TikTok's recommendation algorithms. They emphasized their concern with the incorporation of regional contexts and elements in the application of content policies, which leads to the company's adoption of regional moderation teams. The Office of the Special Rapporteur is the first Latin American entity to visit the company's Transparency and Accountability Center.  

Creative Commons presented its vision on the need to promote universal access to research and education and full participation in culture through the Internet. The non-profit organization indicated that it offers legal and technical support to promote free, open, and equitable access to scientific, artistic, and cultural content. In its campaigning and public policy intervention activities, it reported that it contributes to governments and institutions to make knowledge of public interest available available and promote open access to scientific research data.    
The Office of the Special Rapporteur values the willingness and openness of the companies and organizations during the meetings held throughout the visit. The Special Rapporteur also expresses its commitment to strengthening the capacities of Member States to participate in Internet governance forums, including building a critical opinion on the challenges, impacts, and potential risks related to the use of new technologies for the integrity of democracy and the enforcement of human rights.  
In this regard, the Office of the Special Rapporteur thanks the representatives of the participating Member States for their contributions to these meetings and calls on all OAS Member States to renew their commitment to these issues and to establish in the near future a network of focal points to serve as counterparts in the discussions on technology and human rights issues. Future efforts should also focus on the exchange of experiences, best practices, and technical expertise that will improve the region’s positioning to comply with the obligations established in the American Convention on Human Rights and other normative instruments of the system 

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.