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Advancing digital responsibility through independent evaluation: Learnings from the Internet Commission’s first accountability reporting cycle

Jonny Shipp / Jul 2021

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A trusted internet?

In late 2017, on the day the UK Government published its first proposals for what is now the Online Safety Bill, I led a roundtable discussion to explore the idea of an “Internet Commission”. A series of stakeholder workshops followed to explore the scope of “digital responsibility” and develop a new accountability process in support of an effective Internet regulation ecosystem. Amidst public anxiety about the operation and negative effects of social media platforms, most agreed that industry could no longer be allowed to “mark its own homework” and that a new wave of corporate accountability was required.

Leading experts have suggested that regulators could do well to focus on the organisational processes and procedures surrounding content moderation decisions. Inspired by this concept of “procedural accountability”, the Internet Commission published its first Evaluation Framework in 2019, and in 2020 had the opportunity to gather data with a first cohort of “Reporting Partners”: the BBC (broadcasting), Sony Playstation (online gaming), Popjam (social media), and Meetic and Tinder (online dating).

Learning about digital responsibility

Our first implementation allowed us to test and refine a three-step reporting process, designed to enable independent evaluation whilst respecting commercial confidentiality:

  1. Our detailed, confidential case studies helped organisations better understand where they are now, and this component prompted some immediate changes;
  2. Participants appreciated and benefited from sharing knowledge and best practices; and
  3. With the benefit of challenging external scrutiny, we were able to finalise a fair and independent public report.

Reporting Partners confirmed that we were asking the right questions, but we had also included a step for supplementary or clarification questions. These questions turned out to be valuable data for the iteration of the evaluation framework ready for the second implementation cycle this year.

Our analysis identified 24 key trust and safety practices across the organisations we studied. These were evaluated in terms of their congruence with a culture of digital responsibility. Despite the diversity of the cohort, we identified eight shared challenges: safety by design, moderator welfare, right of appeal, reporting, customer focus, understanding emerging issues, moderation technologies and age assurance technologies.

The full report, “Accountability Report 1.0. Online content, contact and conduct: advancing digital responsibility” is available here.

The wider context: driving "Digital with Purpose"

Last month, the Portuguese Presidency of the EU kick-started a future Charter on Digital Rights with the Lisbon Declaration on Digital Rights. It was in this context that CEOs from many of the world’s leading technology companies joined the Digital with Purpose Movement, led by the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative, signing a pledge to governments and policy makers to accelerate the realisation of the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Internet Commission’s work is relevant here because whilst digitalisation can support the delivery of these goals, the goals can also guide more trustworthy digital development. For example, can we achieve Goal 3, “Good health and well-being” whilst harmful content is proliferating? Is the achievement of Goal 16, “Peace, justice and strong institutions” consistent with the spread of misinformation, data privacy concerns or child exploitation? And Goal 9, on “Industry, innovation and infrastructure” must surely require stronger governance and more work to identify and reduce systemic risks in relation to the Internet. These themes are central to the Internet Commission’s evaluation framework, the updated version of which was published in March.

The Digital with Purpose movement has identified digital impact themes across five priority areas. It aims for companies to be assessed and awarded a formal certification, measured annually to track performance. To accelerate the realisation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Internet Commission is contributing on the theme of Digital Trust. Through this work, we aim to spark a “race to the top” in digital responsibility.

The Internet Commission’s second reporting cycle is now well underway with participants including Twitch, Pearson, Meetic and Tinder. Through this work, we identify and independently evaluate how ethical behaviours are embedded within organisational culture through specific processes and practices, thereby advancing digital responsibility and contributing to the movement for Digital with Purpose.

 

Jonny Shipp

Jonny Shipp

July 2021

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