UNESCO’s Guidelines on Contemporary Culture in the Digital Environment: Worth Thinking About

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For some people, saying the word “UNESCO” is like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull. For others, like activists in my region who are seeking to have the Salish Sea (the body of water that straddles British Columbia and Washington State) declared a UNESCO world heritage site, it means getting additional protection for valuable natural heritage areas that are under environmental threat. UNESCO has many guises and is the epitome of the good, the bad and the ugly. First, the positive.

Most people have heard of UNESCO, one of the alphabet soup of UN agencies, mainly because of its wildly popular World Heritage program. This program, based on the 1972 World Heritage Convention has been successful in preserving many natural and human-created heritage sites, both through designation that raises awareness, and by financial assistance particularly to countries with inadequate financial means to protect their heritage. The premise is that heritage is not national in scope but rather part of the common legacy of mankind. In the US there are 23 UNESCO recognized sites, ranging from natural wonders like Yellowstone National Park to cultural icons like the Statue of Liberty and the Pueblo of Taos, N.M. The UK has 31 sites (Stonehenge, Tower of London etc), Canada 18, Australia a similar number. Not surprisingly, given their rich cultures, countries like China, India, France, Germany and Mexico have long listings of sites. Today jurisdictions vie to have their heritage sites listed for the prestige and the tourism dollars that designation can bring. (The US currently has 20 sites on its pending tentative list).

UNESCO of course is engaged in many other areas besides its World Heritage program, and is the custodian of a large number of international conventions in the fields in which it operates—education, culture, social, human and natural sciences and communications. In the area of culture, there are in fact no less than seven UNESCO Cultural Conventions which, in addition to designating and protecting world heritage sites, cover such topics as the protection of cultural properties in the event of armed conflict, fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural property, protection of underwater cultural heritage and the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, and the like.

One of these cultural conventions is the 2005 Convention on Cultural Diversity which has just been updated for the digital age through the adoption of a set of guidelines approved by the 144 states (plus the EU) that have signed and ratified the Convention. The US is not a signatory, based on concerns at the time that the terms of the Convention would allow countries to take protectionist trade measures in the name of culture, among other objections. In fact, the US has had an ambivalent relationship with UNESCO over the years, having withdrawn from the organization in 1984 (under President Reagan) over policy differences, but rejoining in 2003 during the Administration of George W. Bush. However in 2011 the US suspended its financial contribution over the issue of Palestinian participation (as required by Congress) and two years later was consequently denied voting rights. There have been more recent UNESCO controversies over designation of sites in Israel (Temple Mount) where Arab states succeeded in narrowly passing a resolution which downplayed (some would say denied) the site’s connection to Judaism.

There is no question that political games are being played in this forum and that UNESCO comes with mixed baggage. But does this invalidate all of its work? While the UNESCO Council has become politicized, it is also true that the organization has done and still does good work, the world heritage program being a prime example. This brings me to UNESCO’s new Guidelines on Contemporary Culture in the Digital Environment adopted on June 15 of this year.

Not having acceded to the Cultural Diversity Convention, the US was not among the countries adopting the new guidelines. Given that the US is the dominant player both in providing content in the digital environment and fostering the technical and commercial innovations that are currently driving developments in the online world, that omission, in my view, is unfortunate. The issue of how creators (musicians, artists, writers, film makers, news reporters and others) can survive in a digital environment dominated by large internet intermediaries such as search engines, content aggregators and content-driven social media platforms is topical and timely. The UNESCO Guidelines offer some useful prescriptions to protect and preserve cultural expression in the digital age and are illustrative of the increasing attention being paid globally to the issue of dominance of the Internet by a few major corporate players. Given the wide global adoption of the Guidelines, it is worth looking at some of the language and the proposed measures.

The announcement of the unanimous adoption of the Guidelines by the Parties to the Convention outlined clearly why the updated policies had been developed, and explained the process that was undertaken to formulate them;

The guidelines are the fruit of five years of research and debate with experts, governments and civil society on the challenges and potential created by the expansion of social networks and user-generated content, the proliferation of multimedia devices and the emergence of powerful web-based companies. These factors mean the digital environment requires new business models for e-commerce and streaming, for example, and reinforced policies to protect copyright.”

The detailed Guidelines contained in the Annex to the UNESCO text are grouped into four main areas; creation, production, distribution and access. Among the key overriding themes are the digital gap and the need for universality of digital access, the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms including artistic freedom and freedom of expression, the promotion of cultural diversity, fair remuneration for artists and creators in the digital environment, particularly in the music and publishing industries, copyright and related measures to address online piracy, gender equality, sustainable development goals etc.

While it is a long document (as befits UN agencies, one is tempted to think), some of the concepts and language are worth highlighting. Under creation, for example, the Guidelines call for recognizing and valuing the work of creators in the digital environment by promoting

  • equitable and fair remuneration for artists and cultural professionals;
  • transparency in the distribution of income between digital distributors, Internet service providers (ISP) and rights holders as well as among rights holders;
  • access to necessary bandwidth;
  • respect for and protection of intellectual property rights, allowing for collective management, if applicable, and for collective bargaining of digital rights; and
  • electronic legal deposit systems to document and archive their works.

 The production guidelines call for the promotion of digitization particularly among small and medium sized enterprises and the promotion of new forms of financing for cultural and creative industries.

In the area of distribution and dissemination of content the guidelines call for, among other things, the promotion of dialogue between private operators and public authorities in order “to encourage greater transparency in the collection and use of data that generates algorithms”, and “the creation of algorithms that ensure a greater diversity of cultural expressions in the digital environment” as well as promoting the presence and availability of local cultural works.

They also call for the promotion of cooperation between online platforms (video, audio and other aggregators) and rights holders…in order to improve the online distribution of cultural goods and services”. A final point is to call for ratification of international treaties to “combat piracy and the illicit trafficking of cultural goods online”.

Finally under access, there are a number of recommended guidelines, again including, as in distribution, reference to the algorithms that index and reference content. The goal is to bring about greater transparency and readability of these algorithms in order to ensure a diversity of cultural expressions in the digital environment. The guidelines also call for improvements in telecom infrastructure, support for linguistic diversity, encouraging the supply of digital equipment to schools and libraries, establishment of digital literacy programs and encouragement of legislative measures that allow for the fair remuneration of rights holders.

It’s a document crammed full of proposals, and like many heavily negotiated international documents that cover the interests of a wide range of global players from both the developed and developing world, it attempts to strike a balance, both political and economic. The essence of the political message is that diverse cultural voices matter; the economic one is that creators are struggling in the digital environment and there is a need for equitable and fair remuneration. It manages to avoid uttering the word “Google” while making it abundantly clear that the collection of data for the algorithms that internet intermediaries use needs to be more transparent and that “transparency” (surely a compromise word) is needed when it comes to the distribution of income among and between digital distributors, ISPs and rights holders.

Like many declarations and sets of guidelines, it is not prescriptive or enforceable. Moreover, as I pointed out above, the US has not agreed to the Guidelines as it is not a member of the Cultural Diversity Convention that the document is designed to update. Nonetheless, the fact that 144 countries as diverse as all the developed EU countries, Canada, Australia, large cultural and economic entities like India and China, as well as developing African countries, Caribbean micro-states, Arab states, Asian countries, eastern Europe—countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—have agreed to adopt the Guidelines, is important and noteworthy. It demonstrates that the struggle of creators to be fairly compensated and to have their creativity recognized and respected in a digital world dominated by a few corporations manipulating proprietary algorithms is a global issue. For all its warts, UNESCO has made an important contribution to awareness of these issues through the development and adoption of its Guidelines on Contemporary Culture in the Digital Environment.

© Hugh Stephens 2017. All Rights Reserved

It is ironic that less than a month after writing this blog, on October 12 the US announced that it will withdraw from UNESCO at the end of 2018. The main reason cited was the politicization of the organization. The US will sit as an observer after withdrawal–and its unpaid dues will then cease to accumulate! I personally find it regrettable that the world’s leading content producer and cultural and scientific powerhouse will no longer play an active role in UNESCO, given the positive role that the organization can play despite the undoubted intrusion of unwelcome political elements into its work.

Author: hughstephensblog

I am a former Canadian foreign service officer and a retired executive with Time Warner. In both capacities I worked for many years in Asia. I have been writing this copyright blog since 2016, and recently published a book "In Defence of Copyright" to raise awareness of the importance of good copyright protection in Canada and globally. It is written from and for the layman's perspective (not a legal text or scholarly work), illustrated with some of the unusual copyright stories drawn from the blog. Available on Amazon and local book stores.

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