Over-zealous bots silenced human rights speech

May 4, 2021

Last February 11th 2021, two private companies collaborated to shut down an important international event dedicated to human rights defenders. After 21 minutes of livestreaming the Martin Ennals Award 2021 ceremony from our respective Facebook pages, we received messages from Universal Music Group (UMG) about a potential copyright infringement of some music used in our ceremony. Within moments, the entire celebration was taken off Facebook, no longer visible in more than 200 countries worldwide. 

It goes without saying that this result is bewildering, especially since we had the copyright. Why would such a drastic measure be taken against human rights speech by Facebook and UMG – and what can be done about it?  

Freedom of speech online is particularly thorny because the responsibility for patrolling the issue today resides primarily with private companies who may or may not subscribe to their responsibility to uphold rights. This is part of a broader context though: 30 years since the establishment of the world wide web, there are still no universal rules or global oversight authorities whose role is to make sure the internet is working smoothly and safely. A patchwork of guidelines and agencies do a great deal of good to keep things going online – but they have not been enough to address internet shutdowns on the rise; or fake news and conspiracy theories spreading like wildfire online. Despite massive investments in digital security, a Buddhist monk in Cambodia has been digitally defamed, and your Netflix account can be hacked.  

Most of the time we users need to make do with the rules set by internet and social media companies. Those of us who host and support the Award ceremony – the City of Geneva, the Martin Ennals Foundation, and the 10 leading NGO members of the Award Jury – find ourselves wading through a morass of social media policies made primarily for businesses, which can, as we’ve learned, sacrifice the not-for-profit users. Under the commercial logic driving the online world, human rights organizations have difficulties promoting their publications on social media (content could be political), but underage users can easily be contacted on those same platforms by adults seeking sexual encounters  

We used our contacts to inquire with Facebook and knocked on different doors at UMG to ask about their commitment to uphold freedom of expression and protect defenders online. We looked for answers in the latest research on copyright being used to silence activists.  

We were told that copyrights robots detected the music and shut-down the ceremony. One company didn’t tell the other company what the first company was doing; the license we acquired was and wasn’t the right one. Sorry, some said, while others kept radio silence. We were looking for accountability and not finding it. Is there anyone to be held accountable in the digital world ? Have bots been over-zealous toward human rights speech? Was it intentional or not?  

It is hard to say, but the timing of this incident is notable. Facebook recently published a human rights policy, which puts forth its commitment to respect human rights and follow standards laid down in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Facebook policy refers to measures for redress – meaning, actions which can repair harms and negative impacts – as well as a commitment to supporting human rights defenders. 

We are ready to believe that the big social media companies support freedom of expression and respect for human rights online. Which is why we call upon Facebook and UMG to thoroughly investigate the experience of our ceremony, to share this review publicly, and to clearly explain how they will correct the automated processes which led to such a disproportionate response. We call on UMG specifically to review how its aggressive enforcement of copyright online can be employed to undermine freedom of expression, in particular human rights speech. Lastly, we invite Facebook to exercise its policy on redress by pledging a donation from its new defenders Fund to the Martin Ennals human rights defenders who were negatively impacted by the ceremony shut-down.  

In the meantime, our organizations should also be part of building digital rules and processes that make the online realm safer. The COVID19 pandemic spurred new efforts to leverage digital connectivity for work, health and our personal relationships. But a human rights lens is urgently needed so that the opportunities of digital technology reach all of humanity and solutions can be found for risks online. Human rights defenders are often at the forefront of digital technology, but they are also sometimes its first victim when they are harassed, stalked or smeared. It is therefore essential to think about digital technology through the prism of human rights as well, so that these technologies benefit humanity as a whole. With this in mind, the Martin Ennals Foundation is encouraging nominations from activists working at the intersection of human rights and digital technology for the 2022 Prize. Nominations are now open