Concept note

I. Context

In accordance with its mandate and in response to the existing debates on the digital technologies impact on the exercise of human rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (RELE) are focused on promoting guarantees of freedom of expression in digital spaces, monitoring possible limitations and alerting about possible links between the use of stigmatizing speeches online and violent actions against certain groups.

The main challenges identified are related to the Deterioration of the Public Debate, based on the increase in digital and physical violence against certain people and groups of people who exercise their right to freedom of expression, deliberate disinformation and the inadequacy of companies policies measured against democratic and human rights principles.

Understanding that the internet is an indispensable instrument for the full exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and others of economic, cultural and political nature, concrete actions are required to facilitate the conditions of access, use and exploitation of the internet and technology itself. This includes a transversal approach that addresses the particular deficiencies and vulnerabilities of historically discriminated groups, as well as constant technological innovation and its scope.

In this regard, the IACHR has entrusted RELE to carry out a multistakeholder inter-American dialogue related to three thematic axes:

  • The Deterioration of the Public Debate
  • Digital literacy for the development of civic skills
  • Compatibility of content moderation policies with human rights standards.

During the different phases of the Dialogue, the RELE will address each of the thematic axes from two approaches to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression by Internet users: the first, in light of those users who access information and the second , from those who produce content; Both approaches require a particular approach in each of the thematic axes according to their needs.

This note briefly summarizes what is meant by the Deterioration of Public Debate. It also points out – not exhaustively – themes and sub-themes that will facilitate and scope the Dialogue.

II. Definition

When we refer to the Deterioration of the Public Debate, we speak of the emergence of all kinds of intentional interference that makes it difficult or prevents citizens from exercising their right to express, receive and share opinions and information from various sources and, therefore, hinders participation in democratic decisions, such as elections or formulation of public policies and laws. (“Guide to guarantee Freedom of Expression against deliberate misinformation in electoral contexts” Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, 2019.)

It is important to consider that freedom of expression does not prohibit but rather offers a certain margin of protection against speech that can be classified as erroneous and wrong, regardless of the subsequent responsibilities that may be applied. It is an obligation of the State to remain neutral and promote initiatives that make the Internet a healthy space for democratic exercise without this being understood as a permission to modulate Public Debate.

III. Categories y subcategories

To analyze the main elements that influence the conditions of the democratic Public Debate, we adopt the approach of recipients (those who access and are recipients of information) and creators (those who create content). This distinction is made knowingly and attentively to the fact that – due to the very nature of the internet -, people alternate between the roles of creators and recipients in its multiple and different uses of technology.

Based on this approach, categories that facilitate the understanding of the elements that influence the Public Debate are found and include:

  • Access: What are the conditions to (a) access the information necessary to form one’s own opinions or (b) have the necessary inputs to participate in the Public Debate. This category includes ease of access at a technical level, improper interventions that seek to manipulate the type of information accessed, and the quality and reliability of the information.
  • Protect: Speeches particularly protected by the right to freedom of expression, as well as complementary elements that promote the Public Debate, including the protection of the physical and digital integrity of those who participate.

These categories and subcategories are not exhaustive and may be supplemented during the Americas Dialogue:

Meaningful Connectivity
Net Neutrality
Access to public information
Access to information about candidates for elections
Possibility of accessing different sources of information (e.g. to avoid “filter bubbles”)
Political speech and on matters of public interest
Speech on public officials in the exercise of their functions or on candidates for public positions
Discourses that make up fundamental elements of the identity or dignity of people
Privacy of communications and protection of personal data
Decriminalization of legitimate expressions (Article 13.2 American Convention on Human Rights)

IV. Challenges

Each one of the three thematic axes of the Americas Dialogue presents particular challenges for scoping and debate. This does not mean that they are the only problems the Internet and other technologies pose today, but rather that they are issues that must be analyzed for the construction of comprehensive and sustainable action proposals. 

The categorization of challenges below is artificial and may change during the Americas Dialogue, but its intent is to cover the challenges already documented by the IACHR / RELE.

In relation to the Deterioration of the Public Debate, these challenges are divided into three main categories: political / legal, technical and social.

  • Challenges of a political / legal nature include those related to an action by the State and organizations in a position of power to influence legislative reforms to promote Public Debate, access to public information and protection of personal data; It also includes political will to respect and not criminalize freedom of expression and the establishment of alliances for the execution of political decisions. 
  • Challenges of a technical nature include the needs of reinforcing security measures, the protection of information and the exercise of freedom of expression in digital environments. These challenges are influenced by States, public or private institutions that make decisions about policies and internal tools for dissemination, processing, analysis of discourses and algorithms to promote the diversity of voices in civic space.
  • Challenges of a social nature include vectors that can accelerate the Deterioration of Public Debate. Political leaders, political parties, influencers of opinions or behaviors in social networks, the media and public ethics of the voices of reference. Other examples of this type of challenge will be deepened during the Dialogue.

Challenges of an economic and cultural nature are also recognized and affect the three previously identified categories in a transversal way.

Challenges Examples
The relation between the public and private sectors:
– The power and independence of the platforms and media to make decisions that impact public discourse.
– The ability (both rule-based – laws and regulations – and enforcement-based) of the state to hold private sector actors accountable.
The times of institutional, normative and judicial processes, compared with the dynamism of the internet
The increasing criminalization of conduct on the Internet.
The scope and impact of anonymity.
The tools for discourse analysis, their operation and the databases and algorithms used by them.
The way in which personal data is managed, and if the policy on which the management is based is transparent and understandable.
The development of content moderation policies, and the processes for their application.
The tools to enhance the diversity of voices in the Public Debate.

Basic Bibliography

Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 2013. “Freedom of Expression and the Internet.”

Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 2017. “Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda”

Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 2017. “Standards for a Free, Open and Inclusive Internet.”

Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 2019. “Guide to guarantee freedom of expression regarding deliberate disinformation in electoral contexts.”