How to Remedy the “Infodemic”? On the Notion of Communication Rights

Collaborative essay with Quiana Criales, Hope DeVito, Seraiah Romero, and other participants of the ICM835 – Media Governance course, Spring 2020.

 

What Are Communication Rights? 

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The rights-based approach is typically presented in a general sense as a counterforce that protects individuals against illegitimate forms of power, including both state and corporate domination. Many have noted the democratizing power of the digital age. But the increasing amount of challenges – the rampant spread of disinformation and hate speech online, the internet giants and related violations of privacy, persisting digital divides, and inequalities created by algorithms, to name a few  – face us as individuals and members of society.

These challenges have sparked renewed discussion about the idea and ideal of citizens’ communication rights – and these debates have intensified in today’s global health crisis caused by the coronavirus. No wonder the World Health Organization has called the situation “infodemic”.

Yet, there is no consensus about what communication rights are. The notion can refer not only to existing legally binding norms but also more broadly to normative principles against which real-world developments are assessed. However, there is no consensus on what kinds of institutions are needed to uphold and enforce communication rights in the non-territorial, regulation-averse, and rapidly changing media environment. Besides the actions of states, the realization of communication rights is now increasingly impacted by the actions of global multinational corporations, activists, and users themselves.

The current crisis of COVID-19 is not only a health-care crisis. In many ways, it has shown us the weaknesses of our current media and communication systems. Indicators show that press freedom worldwide has sunk to a record low. International organizations and civil society groups alert us about the surge of misinformation and new mechanisms of surveillance.  In today’s tragic situation, when trustworthy information, access to it, ability to communicate with others, and do so safely is central to solutions, the question arises: In addition to basic human rights, could we in today’s mediatized world also talk about communication rights?

In this essay, we reflect on some key aspects of communication rights:

  • Whose rights are communication rights_ Who can claim a right to communication in the digital age?
  • If and when the rights collide, who and how decides who is right?
  • What is the role of regulation in the digital age?

Based on two podcasts (here and here) by a group of leading scholars in the field…

  • Dr. Karen Donders, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Dr. Marko Milosavljević, University of Ljubljana
  • Dr. Phil Napoli, Duke University
  • Dr. Hannu Nieminen, University of Helsinki
  • Dr. Victor Pickard, University of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Amit Schejter, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel and the Pennsylvania State University
  • Dr. Josef Trappel, University of Salzburg

… we highlight some approaches to these questions, with examples to illustrate them. We will also seek to synthesize what communication rights as a media governance issue could mean to us all as ordinary citizens.

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Whose rights are communication rights?

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) the idea of rights has meant equal rights to all. But whose rights are communication rights, at the end?  There seems to be a consensus that while communication rights are not formalized, we recognize them as innate entitlements of every individual to exercise their freedom of expression and participation in society. This includes free access to information, exposure to diverse ideas and opinions, and the right to engage with different media technologies. In the end, communication rights are not only about free speech but also about possibilities to be exposed to different ideas, ideals, and thoughts. 

There is a close relationship between human rights and communication rights. They are basic human rights that sometimes become complicated within the context of the digital age. Those rights should be practiced by everyone no matter race, color, ethnicity, and so on. The reason that communication rights should tie into human rights is that the freedom of speech and ideas is essential to human existence. Humans need the ability to communicate in order to live a full human existence, which is an essential part of human rights. Furthermore, free-flowing communication allows everyone to be able to communicate and bring new ideas into their individual bubbles. Without freedom of speech, along with the absence of other human rights, countries cannot succeed in the long run, because the bubbles they are in never get better with the new ideas that communication brings.  

The rights are individual rights, but we know that most individuals live in a society amongst others so these rights can be shared.  It is necessary to find a balance as all are equally influential to the global community and society in general. Corporate and individual communication rights intersect in more than one way. Therefore, they need protection for purposes of engagement of individuals and companies in public, political, and social debates on progress. Additionally, they need to be accessible to everyone as it is a form of expression for all the stakeholders, such as speakers and institutions. Also, without communication rights, sharing of ideas, information, and opinions would be impossible. 

What is fascinating – and in today’s case tragic –  is that freedom of speech and expression is explicitly written in the U.S constitution, yet societal structures often suppress a citizen’s right to public debate by limiting their access to public institutions and information. The individuals who run these public institutions are often dependent on external wealthy corporations and advisors who use their status to overrule and silence individuals. The efforts to suppress an individual’s communication rights are often successful because in society more value is given to capitalism (the idea of a free market), than an individual’s basic human rights.  

And while communication rights seem like a national question, they are simultaneously for residents of this world. The case of the coronavirus highlights this point clearly. This breaks down the barriers that have been established based on citizenship, such as those with citizenship in the Global South versus those in the Global North. It puts people, or the human being at the center of this discussion. Communication rights should be the entitlement of every individual on this earth, regardless if they decide to exercise that right or not. 

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Who can claim a right to communication in the digital age?

Digital technologies have brought new, global, national and local actors to the field of communication. At the same time, our lives are becoming increasingly mediatized – beyond mass media to user-generated content and the Internet of Things. Who, in the digital era, can claim a right to communication? Among scholars, the topic of who can claim communication rights is a heavily debated one. Some scholars suggest that communication rights are specifically individual rights rather than that of corporations. Although we hope that each individual can claim the right to communication, we see a continuous battle between the private and public entities.  

Individuals are the primary claimants of communication rights. Today, this communication is no longer a privilege for the rich and powerful but as a human right applicable to every person. It is crucial to create distinctions between the terms of human beings and citizens because the Western world is currently facing a citizenship crisis that may lock out some people from accessing these rights.  Despite being in the digital age, individuals should be able to claim rights to communication. Communication rights involve the freedom of expression of opinion, media governance, media ownership, media control, culture, linguistic rights, rights to education, rights to privacy, and self-determination. These stakeholders of the media make this really hard for people to have these common communication rights using social media and digital technologies. Individuals have the right to be informed, communicate, and express themselves. These are important to some individuals, but when is it morally wrong to take away the rights of this individual? It is up to the stakeholders to determine what they can and can’t display on their social media and technologies. Individuals should have their rights of communication no matter where it may be displayed.  

In the Internet age, along with the advance of digital technology, the appearance of social networks and other new media forms, and the intelligent mobile terminal for the mobile Internet technology, at the same time, the new media companies are also in the communication become monetization, live online, social media, we can pay to chat with a stranger.  The new media industry promotes opportunities for people to communicate and make money. Large companies like Facebook, Instagram, Spotify Music, and Apple Music are, more than ever, giving people the opportunity to claim freedom of speech. 

Yet, corporations are claiming rights and infringing on the basic rights of individuals.  Individuals already are put under so many restrictions and now these are being indirectly taken away. Social media and communication agents have become so integrated into our everyday lives that individuals are at a major societal disadvantage if they do not have access to these services and resources. Media companies leverage this power and manipulate the system for their own (profitable) gain. These stakeholders often get away with violating their users’ communication rights, because their services have become such a necessity for individuals in this digital age.  

An interesting consideration is that corporate rights have a direct impact on employee rights, and hence at an individual level, it affects everyone. Therefore corporations should make a greater effort to analyze how their methods and policies regarding communication propel or hinder the access and freedom of communication for all. So, unfortunately, while many would like to think that everyone has the claim on the right to communication, it seems that corporations currently have the most rights and the most say. If communication rights are mainly in the hands of corporations, can these corporations be trusted to respect them also in times of crisis?

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If and when the rights collide, who and how decides who is right?

In times like these, many communication rights are currently being contested and many wonder: who is responsible, at the end?  For instance, does a global platform need to be responsible for the content its users share, say about false rumors about corona cure? If so, who decides that? The question of communication rights has become a very controversial debate for the digital media industry. Many Internet users share videos on global platforms, and whether videos are allowed to be shared and read is a question that we netizens can easily ignore. The stakeholders involved include the users who enjoy the convenience and the distributors who benefit from it and the platforms that ultimately gain the most benefits. 

The scholars featured in the podcasts note that in a situation in which rights collide, democratic processes often become necessary. In such scenarios, there must be a redistribution of power and legal and court systems play a large role in achieving fairness. The solution lies in a democratic and fair system that is transparent and inclusive of all the stakeholders, such as the justice system, where courts act as arbitrators. Several facets are at stake: 

  • First, there is the issue of many being left out of the decision-making process or get left out by the final decision. 
  • Secondly, there also needs to be a determination of what is the right of/to communication being looked at in this process. 
  • Thirdly, is to ensure one of two things are not happening – one is that the state does not decide against the rights of the citizens; two is that countries should also not be looking at corporate trends or interests in the process of decision making. 

Communication rights are often monetized and regulated by major corporations and media stakeholders with very little checks and balances from the government to ensure that citizens’ rights are not violated. Stakeholders promote this idea of free expression, connection, and creativity, but only to the extent which benefits them. The moment users fight for more transparency, privacy, and governance, companies seem to always override them even at the government level.  Many thinkers and activists claim that the corporate agenda indeed dictates our global economy, especially now, in the digital age. Internet service providers directly determine how people receive information, and even what they can and cannot accept. Therefore, most Internet service providers have the attributes of media. Platforms with media attributes, especially those with more than 100 million users, should balance their pursuit of commercial interests with their obligation to fulfill social responsibilities. Service providers should be responsible to protect users’ human rights, freedom of speech and personal privacy.

In the case of communication rights policy at a global level, a legal third-party democratic system is necessary to ensure the preservation of our democracy and the basic rights of our citizens. One can instantly think of the United Nations since it has been established as a peacekeeping body that advocates for the rights of humans all across this world. Since communication rights are central to human rights, the UN could perhaps be on the leading edge of communication mediatory policy. 

There is currently a massive imbalance in how communication rights are applied and used. The issue of citizenship has been the core culprit in eroding dynamic and just communication balance. Primarily in Europe and the United States, the state has taken on an authoritarian approach to communication denying groups they consider alien, or threats to their views access to communication on any platform. Gags put on both citizens and corporations aim to propagate their agendas, such as trade deals than on human rights. 

Since we are in a digital age, where we all have access to continuous information, new social platforms, and a profile that allows people to be who they want, both corporations and legal systems decide who is right. Realistically, these companies have systems that will defend them to the tea, whether user rights are violated or not. 

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What is the role and competence of regulation in the digital age?

A global crisis highlights the need for action. But are digital modes of communication so dispersed and so global that they are beyond regulation? How have some efforts to regulate communication rights succeeded – or not? 

Regulations essentially ensure and maximize one’s access to communication rights. There are several factors within regulation in the digital age. While it seems difficult to pinpoint exactly how to regulate communication rights in the digital age from an international level, it is necessary to ensure equality within the power dynamics of those involved. It is particularly necessary to regulate the power relationships when large corporations are involved as they may impede the rights of individuals in certain cases. 

Regulations are pivotal to the management of emerging technologies that are said to promote communication yet abuse the rights of those using them. Nothing is absolute, and hence these competencies only help streamline the creation of policies that align to state and social needs such as ethical communication.

The role of competence of regulation in the digital age should be inclusive of all people. People who have too much power should be regulated to give individuals a chance to communicate and express their opinion. This is important because individuals need to know that they can achieve their communication rights, and not be regulated and overpowered by large companies. The role of regulation could truly provide a digital environment with certainties that it could be helping individuals with their communication rights and not take them away. 

In a sense, the digital communication patterns of globalization and its dispersion is beyond the scope of regulation, regulation is a great test for the network, facing this kind of problem, the United States has also put forward the corresponding legislation such as promoting the revising The Telecommunications Act. In the digital era, the development of information technology can solve these problems, step by step in the regulatory network that received a significant effect. Regulation in the digital, global age is still dependent on the national context, technological context, and the roles of various stakeholders. In particular, government regulation is quite imperative. From the perspective of corporations, regulation may mean a threat. If one aspect gets regulated that means rules have to apply to all other things as well. Government regulation disrupts the flow of capitalism and thus enables such issues to continue caused by media conglomerates and other corporations. At the same time, we as users need to limit the amount of power these individuals behind these corporations may have. We need to take back control of how we communicate and create awareness within our community — as it relates to their communication rights. 

Social media platforms and corporations are never held accountable for violating the communication rights of their users. Key decisions are always made within the legal system at the state level. Media companies have maintained their power, wealth and success in the global economy because the government allows them to. This idea that regulation of any kind threatens our very idea of capitalism and has the potential to strip us of our other innate rights is absurd. Government regulation needs to be normalized. The state needs to intervene to ensure that digital platforms are held accountable for infringing on the rights of their users. In order to maintain a balanced digital environment, the government needs to put in place a system of structural protections,  institutions, consequential sanctions, and democratic policy-making that addresses the needs and concerns of the public. 

Finally, regulation is a tough act to conquer. The related, major, question that also must be asked is who gets to make these decisions on the regulation? Should it be the government or corporations? Or some mix of the two. One model could be a mix of government, corporation, and user input on what they believe should be regulated. The government should have a say because there need to be general guidelines for corporations to go off of. These guidelines will allow both the corporations and users to determine between themselves what other aspects need regulation that might not be covered by the government’s initial guidelines. As for the role it plays, well regulation plays a needed, but often lacking, role on the internet. Most of the time, regulation is playing catch up rather than setting the standard. 

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Conclusion

The emergence and development of the right to communicate is a sign of the progress of human civilization. The people of the past were not free or democratic enough to have a voice. Now that people use digital technology, many forms of communication have become a part of life. Whether that role is taken up by the government, corporations, or users themselves, the digital age needs that definition because it is changing so quickly every day in terms of new communication technologies. And, as the age of coronavirus teaches us, there needs to be a consensus on what is the right to communication and how to ensure that right is not infringed upon.  those technologies need to be able to fit right in with existing regulations rather than the world playing catchup to those technologies. 

We already have the common ground: the right to communicate is deeply rooted in the established right to freedom of expression, a fundamental human right on its own, key to the fulfillment of other rights, and an essential underpinning of democracy. Communication is not only central to the enjoyment of many human rights but also a medium through which people assert or assert their rights. Everyone has the potential for communication and recognizes that the opportunity for communication is a fundamental human right, which provides an opportunity for people to join the whole society, the whole world.

In addition, there is a collective opinion that everyone should have this right. This transcends across people of various communities and the world. Everyone has a right to engage in communication that is political in nature or not; to have access to an equal communication environment, and to be protected in such. 

Communication rights are simply human rights. In the digital age, the question of who can claim these rights and how to proceed with proper regulations becomes unclear. Despite these challenges, every individual should have unwavering communication rights. With proper government regulations and public policies developed to correspond with advancing technologies, we could at least minimize some of the complications that come with the discussion of communication rights.  

In practical terms, moving forward, there is a significant need for stricter monitoring and evaluation of the digital environment. Furthermore, more precise definitions of communication rights are necessary so as not to disadvantage anyone. With more countries looking to their sovereignty, the policies and legislation in place to manage communication rights must focus on addressing the disparity and bias used in applying these rights.

It should be recognized that not everyone has the same ideas for communication rights and each of these questions could be explained even further. Not everyone has the same beliefs and I think this is where these companies struggle on communication rights because not everyone has the same morals. As we move forward, hopefully, there will be a common ground and a minimization of issues on digital communication rights. 

As much as we’d like to believe that people have the right to communicate, we can all agree that it’s not reflected much in the current society that we live in. Corporations control what we see, whether it’s a television advertisement or social media ad and to be honest, this calls for more action from the people. The question is, do we have that much power to take back the control? There are so many moving parts because we also control how well these companies are thriving. Without human beings and consumers, there would be no communications. So it’s tricky, but it’s not impossible. After all, when the coronavirus crisis has passed, we may need communication rights more than ever the rebuild and heal our societies.

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