Freedom of expression and access to information in the digital age

A perspective from Uruguay

May 3, 2022

The quality of public debate is one of the pillars of modern democracies, now more than ever, given the complexity of the tensions and multiple global crises that our societies face. However, in the last decade this debate has shown clear signs of deterioration.

Let us take as an example the Deliberative Democracy Index of the Varieties of Democracies institute, which expresses the extent to which decision-making in a country is based on a public debate that is rational, open and respectful of different points of view. Since 2011, this index has fallen by 10 percent if we consider the simple average worldwide and almost 30 percent if we take the average weighted by the size of the population of each country.

There are multiple causes behind this trend, such us the increase in social and political polarization, the growing disenchantment with the processes and institutions of democracy, and the progressive reduction of spaces for citizen participation. There is no doubt, however, that the impoverishment of the public debate is also due to the negative consequences that a series of economic and technological transformations have had on different aspects of national and global information ecosystems, including the conditions for a free and pluralistic press.

From May 2 to 5, on World Press Freedom Day, experts from around the world will meet in Uruguay to explore the impact of the digital age on journalism, freedom of expression and access to information with a focus on the theme “Journalism under digital siege”. We would like to take this opportunity to consider the experience of Uruguay and reflect on some lessons of global relevance.

In recent years several initiatives have been carried out in Uruguay to protect the integrity of the national information ecosystem, with the support of UNDP, UNESCO and other partners. One of them was the support for the “Campaign Free of Fake News” that included the signing of the first Ethical Pact against Disinformation in Latin America by all parties in the parliament during the 2019 presidential elections. Furthermore, training activities were implemented for journalists and communicators from public bodies as well as well as awareness campaigns for citizens.

These initiatives have contributed to a more resilient information ecosystem and a context that is more conducive to journalistic activity. However, the protection of freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the security and viability of journalism, require a deeper understanding and a more adequate approach to various dynamics in the digital sphere.

This is why UNDP, in alliance with OBSERVACOM, is carrying out the initiative Internet, freedom of expression and access to information in Uruguay. Contributions to the debate on democratic online governance, in which we promote an informed debate on the role of the large Internet platforms and their impact on public deliberation, through a rich participatory process.

What have we learned from these discussions?

The moderation of content on large platforms, in effect, a private regulation of public spaces, represents a highly problematic phenomenon that, aggravated by the growing concentration of Internet services in a few corporations or individuals, constitutes a threat to public deliberation and freedom of expression on the internet.

Notwithstanding the impact that the intervention of these platforms has acquired in the online public debate, there remains a high level of opacity about how they moderate content on social networks. A regime of greater transparency is needed that requires platforms to publish the criteria they use for ordering, prioritizing, reducing scope or addressing content.

Also, the services and business models of these platforms have produced a transfer of advertising revenue from the media to a few Internet intermediaries. This trend has had an economic impact on national producers of news and journalistic content, affecting their sustainability and generating negative consequences for diversity and pluralism.

States have a clear obligation to pass regulations to guarantee the exercise of human rights online. However, there are risks that this intervention affects the rights that are meant to be protected and the internet itself, and indeed many of the regulatory reactions that have been seen so far are inadequate and disproportionate.

In this context, there is a certain consensus of the need to move towards a path of "democratic co-regulation", with the participation of a wide range of actors, which can overcome the limitations of corporate self-regulation at the same time as the risks of authoritarian excesses related to government over-intervention.

In December 2021, in the Uruguayan parliament, we promoted a discussion on the findings of this initiative and the Bicameral Futures Commission established a process to follow up on this debate. This was an important step. However, given the cross-border nature of digital transformations, there is a need to transcend the national level and to generate global working alliances in order to have impact on this agenda.

Without a doubt, it is possible to generate a proposal for democratic and progressive regulation to bring greater quality to the large internet platforms, through participatory dialogue. The time has come to unite our efforts to make decisive progress in this process and ensure effective protection of freedom of expression as well as access to quality information in the digital age.

This article was originally published in Spanish here.