“You see a digital world that is unwelcoming and frequently unsafe for people trying to exercise their rights,” said Peggy Hicks of the UN Rights Office in Geneva.
“You also see a host of government and company responses that risk making the situation worse,” she told a press briefing.
According to a tally by the agency, 40 new laws regulating social media have been adopted around the world in the past two years, with 30 more under examination.
“Virtually every country that has adopted laws relating to online content has jeopardised human rights in doing so,” she said.
In responding to public pressure to regulate online content, “some governments see such legislation as a way to limit speech they dislike and even silence civil society and critics,” Hicks said.
“We can, and should, make the internet a safer place, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of fundamental rights,” she said.
She said the problem of “overbroad or ill-defined language” crossed ideological lines, from Vietnam to Australia, and Bangladesh to Singapore.
Hicks underscored the “critical importance of adopting human rights-based approaches to confronting these challenges,” adding: “We need to sound a loud and persistent alarm, given the tendency for flawed regulations to be cloned, and bad practices to flourish.”
Hicks pointed to calls in Britain for stringent regulations in response to online racist attacks against three black England players who missed penalties in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final.
Also at the briefing was UN human rights officer Marcelo Daher, who urged that “actual people — not algorithms — review complex decisions.”