UN Report: Internet as Human Rights Issue

Blue flag of the United NationsThe United Nations Human Rights Council has published a report [pdf] by Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The document is heavy on analysis of online expression, looking at the internet as a human rights issue.

I’ll post various key excerpts on more specific topics in coming days. But first, here are some key excerpts of the report regarding the importance of the internet for free expression. There is a lot of good sense in here. Most importantly, the internet strongly identified as implicating human rights issues. Additionally, we get the counsel that because the internet is special, it deserves freedoms from regulation that traditional forms of media may not enjoy.

These excerpts are from paragraphs 2, 19-23,

The Special Rapporteur believes that the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States. …

Very few if any developments in information technologies have had such a revolutionary effect as the creation of the Internet. Unlike any other medium of communication, such as radio, television and printed publications based on one-way transmission of information, the Internet represents a significant leap forward as an interactive medium. Indeed, with the advent of Web 2.0 services, or intermediary platforms that facilitate participatory information sharing and collaboration in the creation of content, individuals are no longer passive recipients, but also active publishers of information. Such platforms are particularly valuable in countries where there is no independent media, as they enable individuals to share critical views and to find objective information.

Indeed, the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. …

… the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights.

The vast potential and benefits of the Internet are rooted in its unique characteristics, such as its speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. At the same time, these distinctive features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in “real time” and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur also emphasizes that the existing international human rights standards, in particular article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, remain pertinent in determining the types of restrictions that are in breach of States’ obligations to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

However, in many instances, States restrict, control, manipulate and censor content disseminated via the Internet without any legal basis, or on the basis of broad and ambiguous laws, without justifying the purpose of such actions; and/or in a manner that is clearly unnecessary and/or disproportionate to achieving the intended aim, as explored in the following sections. Such actions are clearly incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law, and often create a broader “chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur emphasizes that due to the unique characteristics of the Internet, regulations or restrictions which may be deemed legitimate and proportionate for traditional media are often not so with regard to the Internet. For example, in cases of defamation of individuals’ reputation, given the ability of the individual concerned to exercise his/her right of reply instantly to restore the harm caused, the types of sanctions that are applied to offline defamation may be unnecessary or disproportionate.

Similarly, while the protection of children from inappropriate content may constitute a legitimate aim, the availability of software filters that parents and school authorities can use to control access to certain content renders action by the Government such as blocking less necessary, and difficult to justify.12 Furthermore, unlike the broadcasting sector, for which registration or licensing has been necessary to allow States to distribute limited frequencies, such requirements cannot be justified in the case of the Internet, as it can accommodate an unlimited number of points of entry and an essentially unlimited number of users.

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