07 May 2024

To arrive at rights-respecting online platform regulation, we need more focus on data access for researchers

As governments grapple with the complexities of regulating online platforms, one often overlooked essential factor is data access for researchers. Access to data is in many ways the lifeblood of evidence-based policymaking. Without it, we are hindered in our ability to understand the ways that platforms operate. This absence of information can lead to regulatory approaches that are ineffective, disproportionate, or even pose risks to the enjoyment of human rights. 

For the international community to arrive at rights-respecting and evidence-based approaches to online platform regulation, mechanisms which provide access to data need to be established in both Global North and Global Majority countries. This includes information about the dissemination of expression online, content moderation practices, algorithmic decision-making processes, and the impact of policies on users’ rights, particularly on vulnerable and traditionally marginalised groups.  

However, gaining access to such data is often challenging. Online platforms, wary of disclosing sensitive information, frequently resist requests for data access when there are no regulatory requirements in place. Even where such mechanisms exist, including in the EU’s Digital Services Act, these don’t necessarily extend to researchers and the data they need in other jurisdictions, including in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, or Southeast Asia. As set out in this explainer, simply copying and pasting provisions from the global North to the global Majority can pose risks to human rights and fail to consider local contexts.

A significant step was taken to address this issue last week as Global Partners Digital, Internet Lab, and Derechos Digitales collaborated to host a T20 side event on data access to researchers in Sao Paulo, which took place alongside the margins of NetMundial+10 and the G20 event on information integrity. Insights from the side event resonated widely with stakeholders, and were specifically highlighted during subsequent events, including World Press Freedom Day in Santiago, Chile.

There is a clear urgency to this issue. Proposals to regulate online platforms are constantly emerging across the globe. The extent to which we prioritise data access for researchers could determine the openness and transparency of the next generation of regulation, with significant consequences for human rights. Tackling this critical dimension will require the close collaboration of all stakeholders: governments, international organisations, the private sector, civil society, researchers, academia and technologists. It also demands a truly inclusive geographical approach, which fully accounts for the diverse needs of all regions and researchers, not just those of the global North. 

We would love to discuss opportunities for building out this work: if you’d like to connect, email info@gp-digital.org