HRC: Landmark discussion on freedom of expression and the internet

Summary: On 29 February, the Human Rights Council held a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression on the internet.

Background

In its decision 18 / 27, adopted in September 2011, the Human Rights Council decided "to convene, within existing resources, at its 19th session, a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression on the internet, with a particular focus on the ways and means to improve its protection in accordance with international human rights law."

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression submitted his 2011 report on internet free speech rights. In the report, the Special Rapporteur said online expression must remain free of censorship and calls on all States to ensure universal access to the internet.

ARTICLE 19 hailed the report as a milestone in the development of policy on freedom of expression as it relates to internet and urges all governments to fully implement its recommendations.

Landmark discussion

A panel discussion took place on 29 February during the 19th session.

Opening the panel discussion, Navi Pillay, UN Chief, said that the internet had become an indispensable tool for people to receive information and to become providers of information by offering a global and public online space where people could share their views and opinions, exchange ideas and make their voices and demands heard.

Internet transformed human rights movements

As a result of those unique characteristics, the internet had transformed human rights movements as States could no longer exercise control by claiming monopoly over information. This had resulted in a backlash effect and intensified attempts to unduly restrict access to online content or the internet as such.

Riz Khan of Al Jazeera, acting as moderator of the panel, said that this panel was unique because it was the first time that the issue of internet freedom was being discussed comprehensively in the context of human rights. He noted the global context in which this debate was occurring and how the power of social media and the impact of citizen journalism during the Arab Spring had changed the role of the media industry.

Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, speaking as a panellist, said there was a need to protect human rights on the on-line world and internet freedom had become critical for the future protection of freedom and human rights around the world.

New standards not needed

Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, speaking as a panellist, said that new standards on human rights were not needed because human rights principles and doctrines applied off line and on line and whether through oral, written or any other form of expression the same basic freedom of expression principles would apply.

Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, speaking as a panellist, said there were important social and cultural rights that the internet could support, especially in the area of education and using technology to promote and expand access to rights.

Carlos Afonso, Executive Director of the Centre of Research, Studies and Learning, NUEPF, Brazil, said Brazil was trying at the moment to approve a civil rights framework for the internet that incorporated rights to privacy and access which could be in conflict with other laws.

View from business

William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs for Google, said that the major challenge today was how to maintain freedom on the internet when currently 40 countries sanctioned the internet, up considerably from a few years ago.

Hesti Armiwulan, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia, said that financial constraints limited the right to access the internet and efforts should be made to reduce the cost of access.

General discussion

The debate was then opened up to the floor.

Journalists need protection

In the discussion, speakers said that there should be no restriction on the flow of information on the internet, except when international human rights laws were threatened. A draft resolution and a convention for the protection of journalists were needed to protect bloggers.

Censorship

Speakers were concerned that States were filtering and blocking access to the internet to unduly limit freedom of expression. Questions were asked about what measures could be taken so that international cooperation could improve the infrastructure in developing countries, while reconciling issues like child pornography with freedom of expression? It was important to bridge the digital divide, but quality, access, utility and relevance of content should be equally ensured.

Participants

Speaking in the discussion were the Netherlands, Estonia, Cuba, Norway, Germany, Turkey, China, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Egypt, the United States, Uruguay, Honduras, Switzerland, Thailand, Ecuador, the European Union, Chile, Algeria, Council of Europe, India, Canada, Finland, Japan, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Press Emblem Campaign, Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, Human Rights House Foundation, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Internet Society also took the floor.


Further Information

pdf: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11888&L...