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The Role of ICT Companies in Preventing the Spread of Hate Speech: A Case Study of the 2013 Kenyan Presidential Elections

November 7, 2013
12:00PM - 01:30PM

Annenberg School for Communication, Room 300
3620 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

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Categories: Seminar

The question of how to regulate certain forms of speech in the digital realm, so-called “hate speech” in particular, is an on-going controversy that affects every country in the world differently. The lack of an internationally agreed definition of “hate speech” has made it difficult to clarify its meaning and how it should be dealt with in the digital realm, which can be problematic for Information and Communication (ICT) companies when deciding whether content should be removed from the web or blocked in accordance with the law. Companies are therefore often left to take these decisions based on their own terms of services, or are asked to do so by authorities such as courts or governments, and in some cases, interest groups. A common criticism levelled at companies is that they either do not remove enough content or they block too much content, and it is not an easy task to draw the line on where freedom of expression ends and legitimate restrictions begin.

As part of the Digital Dangers project, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has produced a report delving further into the issue, looking at the example of the 2013 Presidential Elections in Kenya and the actions of a local mobile operator, Safaricom, to mitigate the spread of hate speech via their SMS network during this time.

The disputed 2007 Presidential election in Kenya resulted in an outbreak of post-election violence that left over 1,000 people dead and over 600,000 people displaced. The post-election enquiries reported that SMS messages and blogs were one of the triggers of the post-election violence, exploiting tensions between ethnic communities (or ‘tribes’) and inciting violence. In the run up to the 2013 elections, there were concerns of another outbreak of violence; new, untested laws; fears over the potential of SMS to simultaneously send messages that incite violence; a government that hadn’t clarified how it intended to enforce the law; and an expectation from the public—at least civil society—that some action was needed to curb violence. There was also the added factor that there were thousands more social media users in 2013 than in 2007.

Lucy Purdon will present some of the findings of the report and recommendations and lead a discussion on how companies can use the example of Kenya to help them make decisions in similar situations of social tension, where accusations of hate speech arise and companies are expected to block or remove content, so they act in a way that is consistent with the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, in particular freedom of expression and privacy, as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Lucy joined IHRB as an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) researcher on the EC Human Rights Sector Guidance project. She manages IHRB’s ICT Programme and works mainly on issues of freedom of expression and privacy in ICTs. Lucy graduated with an MA in Human Rights from The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), University of London. Her thesis, ‘Privatising Dissent’, applied the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the ICT sector. Prior to this, Lucy was a documentary producer/director and ran film-making courses for young offenders in the UK. She also holds a First Class BA (Hons) in Film and Video from London College of Communications, University of the Arts.