Automated Content Moderation, Hate Speech and Human Rights

Automated Content Moderation, Hate Speech and Human Rights 

by Natalie Alkiviadou

Source: mikemacmarketing

Within the framework of a multi-stakeholder, cross-border, EU project entitled SHERPA ‘Shaping the Ethical Dimensions of Smart Information Systems (SIS)’, a project led by the University of De Montfort (UK), a deliverable was developed on 11 specific challenges that SIS (the combination of artificial intelligence and big data analytics) raise with regards to human rights. This blog post seeks to focus on one of those challenges, namely ‘Democracy, Freedom of Thought, Control and Manipulation.’ This challenge considered, amongst others, the impact of SIS on freedom of expression, bias and discrimination. Building on the initial findings of that report, this short piece will examine the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the process of content moderation of online hate speech. This particular challenge was chosen given that the moderation of online hate speech is a hot potato for social media platforms, States and other stakeholders such as the European Union. Recent developments such as the EU’s Digital Services Act and the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act seeking to cultivate new grounds through which online content and the use of AI will be managed.

Online communication occurs on a “massive scale”, rendering it impossible for human moderators to review all content before it is made available. The sheer quantity of online content also makes the job of reviewing, even reported content, a difficult task. As a response, social media platforms are depending, more and more, on AI in the form of automated mechanisms that proactively or reactively tackle problematic content, including hate speech. Technologies handling content such as hate speech is still in its “infancy”. The algorithms developed to achieve this automation are habitually customized for content type, such as pictures, videos, audio and text. The use of AI is not only a response to issues of quantity but also to increasing State pressure on social media platforms to remove hate speech quickly and efficiently. Examples of such pressure include, inter alia, the German NetzDG which requests large social media platforms to remove reported content that is deemed illegal under the German Penal Code and to do so quickly (sometimes within 24 hours) and at risk of heavy fines (up to 50 million Euros in certain cases). To be able to comply with such standards, companies use AI alone or in conjunction with human moderation to remove allegedly hateful content. As noted by Oliva, such circumstances have prompted companies to “act proactively in order to avoid liability…in an attempt to protect their business models”. Gorwa, Binns and Katzenbach highlight that as “government pressure on major technology companies build, both firms and legislators are searching for technical solutions to difficult platform governance puzzles such as hate speech and misinformation”. Further, the “work from home” Covid-19 situation has also led to enhanced reliance on AI accompanied by errors in moderation. In fact, as noted, for example, by YouTube, due to COVID-19, the amount of in-office staff has been reduced meaning that the company temporarily relies on more technology for content review and that this could lead to errors in content removals.

Over-blocking and Freedom of Expression

Relying on AI, even without human supervision can be supported when it comes to content that could never be ethically or legally justifiable, such as child abuse. However, the issue becomes more complicated when it comes to areas which are contested, with little or complicated legal (or ethical) clarification on what should actually be allowed (and what not) – such as hate speech. In the ambit of such speech, Llansó states that the use of these technologies raises “significant questions about the influence of AI on our information environment and, ultimately, on our rights to freedom of expression and access to information”. For example, YouTube wrongly shut down (then reinstated) an independent news agency reporting war crimes in Syria. Several videos were wrongly flagged as inappropriate by an automatic system designed to identify extremist content. Other hash matching technologies such as PhotoDNA also seem to operate in “context blindness” that could be the reason for the removal of the videos on Syria. YouTube subsequently reinstated thousands of the videos which had been wrongly removed.

As highlighted in a Council of Europe report, automated mechanisms directly impact the freedom of expression, which raises concerns vis-à-vis the rule of law and, in particular, notions of legality, legitimacy and proportionality. The Council of Europe noted that the enhanced use of AI for content moderation may result in over-blocking and consequently place the freedom of expression at risk. Beyond that, Gorwa, Binns and Katzenbach argue that the increased use of AI threatens to exacerbate already existing opacity of content moderation, further perplex the issue of justice online and “re-obscure the fundamentally political nature of speech decisions being executed at scale”. Automated mechanisms fundamentally lack the ability to comprehend the nuance and context of language and human communication. The following section provides an example of how automated mechanisms may become inherently biased and further lead to concerns relating to respect for the right to non-discrimination.

The Issue of Bias and Non-Discrimination

AI can be infiltrated with biases at the stage of design or enforcement. In its report ‘Mixed Messages: The Limits of Automated Social Content Analysis’, the Centre for Democracy and Technology revealed that automated mechanisms may disproportionately impact the speech of marginalized groups. Although technologies such as natural language processing and sentiment analysis have been developed to detect harmful text without having to rely on specific words/phrases, research has shown that they are “still far from being able to grasp context or to detect the intent or motivation of the speaker”. Such technologies are just not cut out to pick up on the language used, for example, by the LGBTQ community whose “mock impoliteness” and use of terms such as “dyke,” “fag” and “tranny” occurs as a form of reclamation of power and a means to prepare members of this community to  empower themselves to deal with hatred and discrimination.

Through the conscious or unconscious biases that mark the automated mechanisms moderating content as depicted in the above examples, the use of AI for online hate speech therefore leads not only to an infringement of freedom of expression due to over-blocking and silencing dissenting voices as demonstrated above but, also, shrinks the space for minority groups such as the LGBTQ community. This shrinking space that results from inherent bias therefore leads to a violation of the fundamental doctrine of international human rights law, namely that of non-discrimination.

Concluding Comments

As noted by Llansó, the above issues cannot be tackled with more sophisticated AI. Tackling hate speech by relying on AI without human oversight (to say the least) and doing it proactively and not only reactively, places the freedom of expression in a fragile position. At the same time, the inability of technologies to pick up on the nuances of human communication in addition to the biases that have affected the make-up and functioning of such technologies brings up issues pertaining to the doctrine of non-discrimination.


Natalie Alkiviadou is a Senior Research Fellow at Justitia, Denmark.

The rights of dead persons and the right to water in India on the occasion of COVID-19

The rights of dead persons and the right to water in India on the occasion of COVID-19

by Nabil Iqbal and  Mohd Altmash


Source: Gettyimages

Amid the spike of COVID-19 cases in India during the second wave of the pandemic, various
Indian media (see f.e. The Hindu and Indian Express) reported the visuals of uncounted human dead bodies floating in the river in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These reports received worldwide coverage and the India’s government was criticized for failing to dispose of bodies respectfully. On 14 May 2021 the National Human Right Commission of India issued a notice to  Central and State Governments advocating for the rights of the deceased and directed them to prepare a standard operating procedure for the proper burial of COVID-related deceased in order to maintain their dignity.

Further, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court of India (SC) on June 2, 2021 alleging that the ongoing situation amounts to the violation of human rights that will be summarized in the lines that follow.

Rights of Dead Persons

There is no specific legislative framework in India that protects the rights of people who have died. However, several judicial pronouncements of the SC and the High Courts (HC) have recognized the rights of the deceased and have included them within the purview of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution that manifold the horizons of right to life. These rights include the right to die with dignity and the right to have a decent burial.

Right to die with Dignity - The most representative case on the right to die with dignity is Pramanand Katara v Union of India (U.O.I.), where the SC had explicitly held that the right to life and dignity extends not only to living persons but also to their dead bodies. Further, through judicial activism, the Madras HC opined that “the right to life enshrined in Article 21 cannot be restricted to mere animal existence. It means something much more than just physical survival”. Interpreting this view, the Calcutta HC in Vineeta Ruia v The Principal Secretary, West Bengal, held that the right to dignity guaranteed under Article 21 is not limited to living persons but also to their remains after death.

Right to have a decent burial - The question regarding the right to a decent burial was raised in Vikash Chandra v. U.O.I. In this case, the Patna HC held that it is the responsibility of the government to provide decent burials in compliance with the law and in respect for human dignity. Later, the SC in Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v. U.O.I. recognized the right of decent burial as a fundamental right within the right to life.

At the international level, the rights of dead persons are not explicitly enshrined in International Human Rights (IHR) laws but there are certain provisions that indirectly recognize their rights. These provisions include - a) the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution of 2005 that emphasized the significance of management of human remains in a dignified way, along with their disposal respecting the needs of the families; b) the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, which mentions that special measures should be taken regarding the rights and interest for those who are incapable of exercising their autonomy.; c) the UN’s Inter Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters recommend that appropriate measures should be taken ‘to facilitate the return of remains to the next of kin. Measures should allow for the possibility of recovery of human remains for future identification and reburial if required’; d) Article 3 (a) of the 1990 Cairo declaration on Human Rights in Islam provides “in the event of the use of force and in case of armed conflict- it is prohibited to mutilate dead bodies.”

The Geneva Convention of 1949 of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) explicitly recognizes the rights of dead soldiers under Article 16. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued detailed guidelines and protocols for the proper management of the corpses in a dignified manner.

In contrast to IHL, international human rights law does not contain any express references to the treatment of dead bodies including the rights of the dead and obligations of states. However, in the vast majority of states including India, the rights of  dead persons and offence against dead person have been incorporated under domestic legislation.

Right to clean water

Apart from the violation of rights of dead persons, the dumping of dead bodies in the river amounts to a violation of the right to clean water, which has been recognized both by municipal and international law. The right to clean water and a healthy environment is recognized and guaranteed under Article 21 (Right to life) and Articles 48 & 51A (g) (Protection of environment) of the Indian Constitution by liberal interpretation of the Indian Judiciary. In the landmark case of MC Mehta v U.O.I., the SC has explicitly ruled that the right to clean water and healthy environment is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The SC has reiterated the same in various subsequent judgments (Narmada Bachao Andolan v U.O.I; Bandhua Mukti Morcha v U.O.I.; Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar).

Furthermore, the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act(1974) and the Environment (Protection) Act (1986) are significant legislations in India that outline measures for clean water and healthy environment.

In international law, the right to water has been recognized by  Resolution 64/292 of the United Nations General Assembly, acknowledging the right to clean water as essential for the realization of other human rights.  Similarly, the Human Rights Council in the UNGA Resolution 70/169, approved resolution 15/9 in which the Council stated that the human right to safe drinking water is stemmed from the right to an adequate standard of living. This right is also connected to several other rights namely the right to life, right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, comprehends 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda addresses specific reference to human rights, equality, and non-discrimination principles. The SDGs are universal and goal-oriented in nature. Further, they apply to all countries and all peoples around world. The SDG framework contains a dedicated goal (SDG 6) for water and sanitation: “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Further, The Human Rights Council in 2018 prompted development partners to take up an approach which relies solely on human rights. As such, it would be useful while designing, implementing, and monitoring programmes backing national activities associated to rights to water and sanitation.

In addition, these rights have also been recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Woman (Article 14(2)(h)), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 24(2)).

India has implemented the provisions regarding the right to water in the strict sense. As discussed earlier, the right to water was not initially recognized by the legislatures or the constitution, but the Indian judiciary has declared it as a fundamental right that cannot be compromised at any reason.


In spite of various judicial pronouncements and legal frameworks, these rights are being violated in India. The above-mentioned incident is one of the examples of such violations. Such a negligent act could have serious consequence in the future. Therefore, the government should strengthen laws that could protect the rights of human beings (including the dead). At the same time, it is also necessary to pay attention to deteriorating environmental conditions, especially the ecology of rivers, that is being affected due to the such negligence of individuals or agency of the state.


Nabil Iqbal is a final year undergraduate law student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He has a strong interest in International Human Rights, Environmental and Humanitarian Law.

Mohd Altmash is an undergraduate student of B.A.LLB. from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. His areas of interest include International Law along with Human Rights and Constitutional Law.