UN chief calls for coordinated global action on disinformation, hate and artificial intelligence

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UNITED NATIONS — The proliferation of hate and lies on digital platforms and the threat that artificial intelligence can become an uncontrolled “monster” demand coordinated global action — starting with a code of conduct for governments, tech companies and advertisers that promotes truth and protects human rights, the U.N. chief said Monday.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he plans to appoint a scientific advisory board in a few days, and an advisory board on artificial intelligence in September to prepare initiatives that the U.N. can take. He said he would react favorably to a new U.N. agency on artificial intelligence and suggested as a model the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is knowledge-based and has some regulatory powers.

Guterres told a news conference he plans to consult widely on the just released principles for the U.N. Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms, which he will issue before next year’s U.N. Summit of the Future.

He expressed hope that the code will be widely supported, but when asked whether governments and tech companies are willing to take steps to make digital space safer, he replied, “That’s the question I ask myself.”

“We are dealing with a business that generates massive profits, and we are dealing also in some situations with governments that do not entirely respect human rights, so this is a constant battle — and in this constant battle, we must mobilize all those that are committed to information integrity in digital platforms,” he said.

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, agreed that while it’s a positive step that the U.N. is calling for international solutions to this global problem, its code of conduct won’t likely be sufficient to stop the torrent of false and hateful information online.

“The fact of the matter is that voluntary codes, including the companies’ own terms of service on these issues, have failed to rein them in,” Beirich said. “The problem for the U.N. is they can’t do what it seems is going to have to be done to deal with this problem, which is basically legislation.”

Guterres said there are many initiatives underway, including a law and code of conduct in the European Union for its 27 member nations and a U.K. summit on AI safety in the autumn. Other governments also are looking into forms of regulation. But he said there is a view that regulation isn’t easy because things are moving very quickly, and that therefore a global approach is needed.

Guterres said a key problem is that the tech company business model prioritizes engagement over privacy, truth and human rights. He said tech companies need to understand that massive profits cannot be created “at the expense of a model of engagement that goes before any other consideration.”

The U.N. chief said the code of conduct will not be a solution, “but it will be global” and it will enable governments, tech companies, advertisers and others “to commit to what needs to be done in order to guarantee or at least to seriously promote information integrity in digital platforms.”

The principles Guterres laid out for the code of conduct include commitments “to refrain from using, supporting or amplifying disinformation and hate speech for any purpose. ”

For governments, it seeks commitments not to respond to misinformation, disinformation and hate speech by blocking legitimate comment, shutting down the internet or banning platforms or media outlets — and to guarantee protections for journalists and independent media.

For companies that control digital platforms, it seeks a pledge to be transparent about their algorithms, advertising and how they deal with misinformation, disinformation and hate speech — and to eliminate double standards that allow hate speech and disinformation to flourish in some languages and countries while they are prevented more effectively in others. Tech companies are also urged to give people a greater choice over the content that they see, and how their data is used.

Guterres said a commitment sought from digital platforms includes “urgent and immediate measures to ensure that all AI applications are safe, secure, responsible and ethical, and comply with human rights obligations.”

He said the United Nations “will try to be in the center of all the networks and movements that will be created” to deal with AI technology as it develops. But he said this won’t be easy because governments and international organizations haven’t invested sufficiently in recent decades in personnel who have the necessary scientific and technical knowledge.

“It also requires the commitment of the platforms themselves, and of the AI creators themselves,” Guterres said, “but we will do our best to be a platform where everybody can be together in order to make this agenda advance positively.”

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Ali Swenson contributed to this report from New York.

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