The fundamental human right to freedom of expression is a central pillar of a democratic society. It is safeguarded as such, through national and international instruments, at the forefront of which stands the European Convention of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the right to freedom of expression is not all-encompassing and absolute. It is delimited by obligations and responsibilities essential for the proper functioning of democratic societies.
Today, the means and venues available for citizens to freely express feelings and views are unlimited, with cyberspace providing the main stage, especially for youth. Consequently, the few “Big Tech” companies that own and manage the digital platforms used by billions across the world, have been privileged with facilitating the instant exchange of ideas and dissemination of information. These companies have assumed the role of the gatekeeper not only in determining online content, but also in shaping online discourse. The reality today, is that “Big Tech” cartels driven by economic interest, have the power to create to set universal norms and define the virtues that will shape the future generations. “Big Tech”
Over the last years criticism has been mounting over online platforms fostering hate speech, promoting violence or even providing a safe haven to individuals posing a threat to security or public safety. “Big Tech” has thus far responded with rushed and fragmented decisions, usually fomented by powerful actors in the political or financial stage. They were left to self-regulate and self-evaluate, often stretching the limits of censorship and redefining the right to freedom of speech or expression. The dominance of these tech giants over online speech should not sanction them to filter information at their discretion, thereby undermining democracy and human rights.
In recent years, there has been a surge of efforts to harness the influential power of “Big Tech” by increasing transparency of ownership, demanding accountability and oversight and safeguarding media pluralism. Current attempts especially on the European Union level focus on defining the role and obligations of online players regardless of size or impact by promoting a common code of conduct. They further aim at strengthening coordination among National Regulatory Authorities, as well as at providing equally fair conditions and harmonized rules and obligations for online users.
Establishing independent international and regional oversight bodies is crucial in providing “Big Tech” with the framework and the tools needed to seek legitimate and fruitful collaborations, not only with each other but also with all relevant players, national pertinent departments, regulatory agencies and NGOs. It is equally significant to also tackle this matter on the national level. The rights of citizens will be better protected through a comprehensive legislative framework, which will ensure that online platforms can be vetted, audited and regulated while being subject to effective punitive measures.
While our core values and principles remain the same, we must adapt to the new digital age and always remember not to take for granted our basic freedoms, at the forefront of which is the freedom of expression.
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