Democracy and accountability on the internet

29 November 2017 | General News
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Mr Shefet gave a scintillating talk on democracy and accountability on the internet

Mr Dan Shefet, an internationally renowned lawyer, spoke about accountability on the internet and how institutions could be established to provide recommendations on content during U@live on 22 November at the NUS Shaw Foundation Alumni House.

Based in Paris, Mr Shefet founded the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy in 2014 to introduce internet accountability to provide protection for individuals who have had falsehoods circulated about them. He is particularly well-known for obtaining judgement against global tech company Google, and establishing international reach and jurisdiction on the basis of “Right to be Forgotten” in 2014.

Kicking off his presentation, Mr Shefet outlined the categories of content that could have “dramatic consequences”. The first category covered content that could damage one’s integrity or dignity, and included defamation and hate speech. The second category covered content such as fake news, which Mr Shefet considers the greatest threat to democracy today. Using the 2016 US elections as a case in point, he said, “Whether or not the election of Trump was actually a consequence of fake news generated from Russia, who cares? One thing’s absolutely clear and it’s that it had an impact.” The final category included content that could foment incitement or destabilisation.

You have to cooperate in signalling to them what you’ve identified on the net as being hurtful.

Mr Shefet also addressed the thorny issue of who could be made accountable for hurtful content. Holding an author accountable is sometimes not possible because the author could be anonymous or residing in a country that does not allow the enforcement of another country’s laws.

The trend over the past few years has been to hold the infrastructure providers accountable, shared Mr Shefet. Bursting the bubble, Mr Shefet said that very often, these companies did not possess the technology to identify such content. “You have to cooperate in signalling to them what you’ve identified on the net as being hurtful, ” he urged the audience.

Addressing the idea of internet accountability, Mr Shefet argued for the establishment of a government agency — the internet ombudsman — in each country to oversee reporting of content. Infrastructure providers who come across or have been informed of hurtful content can have access to the ombudsman who will then provide a recommendation, not a judgement or a decision, Mr Shefet was quick to point out.

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Mr Viswa (left on stage) moderated the question-and-answer segment following Mr Shefet’s talk

Mr Viswa Sadasivan, who moderated the question-and-answer segment, queried whether “Right to be Forgotten” could be subject to abuse, to which Mr Shefet responded that it would only apply to content that is “manifestly illicit”.

Mr Viswa also questioned whether a single individual would be able to continually make the right judgement calls, seeing that even within a particular jurisdiction, there are people of different races and religions, not to mention an international internet ombudsman. Mr Sadasivan suggested that a group of people might, after discussion, be able to arrive at a wise decision.

During the question-and-answer segment, members of the audience raised issues such as content on the dark web, whether content could be further categorised according to age, the teaching of media literacy, as well as incentives to encourage companies to remove hurtful content from their websites.

The evening ended with Mr Bernard Toh, Director of NUS Alumni Relations, announcing that the session was the last in the U@live series. Organised by NUS Alumni Relations, U@live was launched in January 2011 and has featured 59 leaders and thinkers from Singapore and overseas to date, who have shared about their passion, motivation and insights.

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Mr Toh (right) paid tribute to Mr Viswa for his leadership and professional guidance as well as for faithfully facilitating and moderating every U@live session since its inception