03.10.2011 - UNESCO

UNESCO triggered debates on social networks for democracy at 6th IGF in Nairobi this week

Jānis Kārkliņš, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information - © UNESCO

“Social media are catalysing democratic and civic participation in many parts of the world including in Africa,” expressed the participants of the UNESCO workshop on “Free flow of information and social networks: a role for democracy and social participation”, held on 27 September 2011 in the framework of the Sixth Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The workshop, chaired by Jānis Kārkliņš, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, gathered six panellists representing government, private sector and civil society from Africa, Asia, Arab States, the United States of America and Europe. Actively attended by more than 80 participants, it was also followed remotely by participants from Asia-Pacific through live webcast.

In light of recent social movements in North Africa, panellists shared the observation that social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, are being widely used in many parts of the world including in Africa, not only for personal communication but also in order to address publicly political, critical or taboo issues, which are not always accessible through traditional media. Grace Githaiga, the Kenyan panellist, pointed out that  in Kenya, with an estimated 8.69 million Internet users, 99 per cent of the Internet traffic is going through mobile operators, and cell phones are being used not just for voice communication and short messaging but for generation, storage and transmission of multimedia content.

While acknowledging social networking’s important use for free expression and democratic participation, panellists and participants exchanged their various concerns about the risks and challenges that arise from the use of social networks, including the quality and ethical standards of user generated content, privacy of citizens and their security, insufficient children protection, opacity of personal data collection and processing, governments’ surveillance and filtering, etc. In this regard, the representative of the Council of Europe shared a draft recommendation on measures to protect and promote freedom of expression and the right to private life in the context of social networking services. Participants also debated whether governments should cut off social networking during riots and whether and how to properly put Internet regulation in place.

The discussion is far from being finished. Participants agreed that there is a need to continue exploring complex policies and regulatory issues of the Internet. They also highlighted that more efforts need to be made to reinforce the democratic participation via social networks within a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework.

Jānis Kārkliņš took this opportunity to invite all participants to join UNESCO’s future workshops on the subject at the next IGF in 2012. He concluded the workshop by reiterating UNESCO’s commitment to promoting freedom of expression and privacy on Internet, as well as its engagement to foster local content creation and education initiatives.

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