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A new set of global principles is advancing digital safety and tackling harmful content

Davos 2023; Advancing digital safety is a challenge for the whole of society.

Developed by the World Economic Forum’s Digital Safety Coalition, the new global principles aim to advance safe online experiences. Image: Pexels

Courtney Gregoire
Chief Digital Safety Officer, Microsoft
Iain Drennan
Executive Director, WeProtect Global Alliance
Cathy Li
Head, AI, Data and Metaverse; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Billions of people around the world rely on digital services for education, work and social interaction.
  • Delivering safe and secure online experiences is essential for global businesses, civil society groups and individuals alike.
  • The World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety engages global leaders to advance user safety online.
  • The Global Principles on Digital Safety translate international human rights into the digital context and are aimed at driving multistakeholder alignment and enabling positive behaviours and actions across the ecosystem.

Safety challenges related to harmful content and conduct can be amplified and complicated in the digital world, where long-standing problems, including child sexual exploitation and abuse, violent extremist and terrorist content, hate speech, self-harm and suicide content, mis/dis-information, pose a growing challenge.

Many of the tensions between safety, privacy, freedom of expression, are at the forefront in a complex digital environment and will be intensified with the advent of new immersive technologies.

The importance of digital safety

Delivering safe and secure online experiences is essential for global businesses, civil society groups and individuals. The World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety is bringing together a diverse group of leaders to accelerate public-private cooperation to tackle harmful content and conduct online.

Members of the Coalition have developed the Global Principles on Digital Safety which define how human rights should be translated in the digital world. The Coalition working group includes representatives from Microsoft, WeProtect Global Alliance, Meta, Amazon, Google, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Ofcom UK and Global Partners Digital.

The principles have been developed through a process of multistakeholder engagement and consultations, including with governments and regulators, major social media and tech platforms, safety tech companies, as well as representatives of civil society and academia.

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Governments, the private sector and civil society all have an important role to play in preventing abuse and exploitation online, particularly when protecting the most vulnerable in society. These principles were created as an actionable, positive step toward creating a safer digital experience for everyone, and they will serve as a guide for all stakeholders in the digital ecosystem to advance digital safety, informing and enabling regulatory, industry and societal efforts and innovations.

Improving online safety is a whole-of-society challenge, and real change requires strong multistakeholder collaboration at a high-level:

  • Joint principles: all supporters should collaborate to build a safe, trusted and inclusive online environment, informing policymaking and decision-making with insights and diverse multistakeholder perspectives. They should support innovative and evidence-based solutions, and advance transparency.
  • Additional principles – supporting governments should: seek to prioritize human rights-based, evidence-based, and data-driven approaches to policymaking; distinguish between illegal content and content that is lawful but may be harmful, and differentiate accordingly any regulatory measures; ensure law and policy respect and protect all user rights; seek to evaluate the impact of new policy or regulatory measures; develop appropriate and effective legal processes, as well as support victims and survivors of abuse or harm.
  • Additional principles – supporting online service providers should: commit to respecting human rights responsibilities through a clear statement or policy and regular due diligence and disclosure; establish the necessary infrastructure and frameworks to embed safety throughout the business; invest in and embed a multidisciplinary approach to safety by design; embrace innovative, evidence and risk-based approaches; provide clarity and transparency about a service’s approach; ensure that technologies and tools used uphold all human rights; minimise the potential risk of adverse impacts to staff and other personnel; collaborate with other online service providers.

While there are specific principles for governments and online service providers, the principles also recognize the critical role civil society plays in advancing digital safety and promoting human rights. Multistakeholder approaches are not possible without active participation from civil society groups to understand the impacts of digital environments on communities. Civil society or non-government organizations also provide important related services, and they help bridge the gulf between public and private institutions and individuals.

The principles take into consideration and are intended to complement existing principles and frameworks developed by a variety of stakeholders, such as the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online, the Santa Clara Principles, the Australian eSafety Commissioner’s Safety by Design principles, the Digital Trust & Safety Partnership’s (DTSP) best practices framework, and many others.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about improving online safety?

Digital safety challenge

More than 5 billion people use the internet, with the typical internet user now spending more than 40% of their waking life online, and more than two hours a day in social networking.

The speed and scale of internet connectivity can be a force for good, but to realize this potential, the internet needs to be a safe and secure space for all individuals.

Global estimates suggest that one in three internet users is a child under 18 years of age, some 80% of children report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online, and one in three children is exposed to sexual content online. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to tackle child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online, found over 250,000 websites containing or advertising CSAM in 2021, a 64% increase from 2020.

Our approach to keeping connected citizens safe

The Forum is supporting collaboration on regulation and industry standards to address the safety of vulnerable groups, especially children.

The Global Coalition for Digital Safety is working with partners including Microsoft, Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon, Oxford Internet Institute, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNICEF alongside seven government ministers and INTERPOL to develop principles and practices that address all aspects of digital safety in a proportionate manner.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the Forum is forging a way forward by creating action-oriented reports and a follow-through agenda for stakeholders who are working on digital safety from different perspectives.

Since the Coalition launched in June 2021, engaged partners have collaborated on clarifying the actions businesses need to take to improve the safety of their platforms, while regulators across jurisdictions have shared key learnings from forthcoming legislation, such as the UK’s Online Safety Bill. Coalition members are also looking ahead and considering a range of mechanisms to embed safety across the metaverse.

The Coalition members are also developing other important resources:

  • A Toolkit of Digital Safety Design Interventions and Innovations, looking at what technology, policy, processes, and design interventions are needed to advance digital safety
  • Risk assessment framework, looking at factors that should be used to identify digital safety risks, developing a methodology for how businesses and other stakeholders should assess and measure these risks.

How can I support the Global Principles on Digital Safety?

Businesses, governments, and other organizations are supporting the principles by taking decisions aligned with the principles, raising awareness of the principles across the online eco-system, including through active promotion, outreach to specific sectors, and encouraging multistakeholder adoption.

If you want to become a supporter of the Global Principles on Digital Safety, please contact us.

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