While there has been a great deal of hullabaloo concerning Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, one would probably not have expected senior officials at the United Nations to find it necessary to have their say on the matter. Yet on November 5th Volker Türk, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, did indeed weigh-in, sending an open letter to Mr. Musk to express his “concern and apprehension” about Twitter’s role in the “digital public square”. He urged Musk to make sure human rights would be “central to the management of Twitter”, and to “address harms” associated with the platform, and also took the time for a bit of finger-wagging at Twitter’s new CEO for sacking Twitter’s human rights team (no, I had no idea it had one either).
The letter was almost certainly only sent so that Türk, who assumed office in mid-October and is a comparative unknown (some UN insiders were apparently hoping for Michelle Obama or Angela Merkel), can get a bit of recognition. But it is instructive nonetheless in giving stark expression to the awkward position which human rights advocates have found themselves adopting when it comes to one of the most salient issues of the day – the regulation of speech online and particularly the subjects of disinformation and misinformation.
This happens in the course of two short paragraphs. Starting off, Türk is keen to emphasise the importance of protecting free speech. Twitter, he notes, is being pressed by governments to take down content or use upload filters, and he urges it in clear terms to “stand up for the rights to privacy and free expression to the full [sic] extent possible under relevant laws”. So, on the one hand, he adopts a strong position against censorship, implying that speech should only be restricted online where it would cross the border into illegality.