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Freedom of expression

Updates

17 Mar 2017

The continued Internet blockage in anglophone Cameroon, now past its fiftieth day, has ramifications for human rights and the economy according to Frontera online. The Economist points out that repression, local tensions and divisions are overshadowing sports and technological prowess of Cameroon society, causing damage to the economic and social fabric of the country.

8 Mar 2017

'Ensuring an Internet free from gender-based violence enhances freedom of expression, as it allows women to fully participate in all areas of life and is integral to women’s empowerment', according to Dubravka Simonovic, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, commemorating International Women’s Day. This relationship between freedom of expression and women's rights was also underlined by David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of expression, who stated that 'The Internet should be a platform for everyone to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, but online gender-based abuse and violence assaults basic principles of equality under international law and freedom of expression in a UN news release the same day.

23 Feb 2017

Alphabet Jigsaw (formerly known as Google Ideas) has launched a tool to combat toxic speech on the Internet: Perspective. The tool uses artificial intelligence to 'score the perceived impact a comment might have on a conversation', and is identifying whether comments can be perceived as 'toxic'. The degree to which content is scored as 'toxic' is based on the language used, rather than the idea expressed. While Google is still working on certain imperfections and complexities in the project, responses have been generally positive, with Forbes even claiming that it is 'the perfect model: a focus on language over ideas, an open API available to others, transparency in how the model was built and what it looks for, and an open feedback loop for users to help refine the model over time'. Other responses are less optimistic, and fear that artificial intelligence can be used to censor controversial speech. 

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Several international instruments guarantee the right to freedom of expression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that this right includes the freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. The Internet, with the opportunity it offers people to express themselves, is seen as an enabler of the exercise of this particular human right. Although these freedoms are guaranteed in global instruments and in national constitutions, in some countries freedom of expression is often curtailed through online censorship or filtering mechanisms, imposed by states, often for political reasons.

 

Safeguarding freedom of expression

Online freedom of expression has featured high on the diplomatic agenda in the past few years; it is, for example, on the agenda of the UN Council of Human Rights, as well as of regional intergovernmental bodies such as the Council of Europe. Freedom of expression on the Internet has also been discussed at numerous international conferences, including in the framework of Internet governance-related processes. The IGF annual meetings have also featured many discussions on issues related to the protection of freedom of expression online.

The discussion on online freedom of expression has been a contentious policy area. This is one of the fundamental human rights, usually appearing in the focus of discussions on governmental content control, censorship, and surveillance. Online freedom of expression also spans a number of other Internet governance-related issues such as encryption and anonymity, net neutrality, and intellectual property rights. Some of these aspects have been analysed in reports issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who has emphasises on numerous occasions that the right to freedom of expression online deserves strong protection. Freedom of expression also appears in broader discussions on human rights and access to the Internet.

Freedom of expression is protected by global instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 29) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), and regional instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10) and the American Convention of Human Rights (Article 13).

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression (Article 19) is counterbalanced by the right of the state to limit freedom of expression for the sake of morality, public order, and general welfare (Article 29). Thus, both the discussion and implementation of Article 19 must be put in the context of establishing a proper balance between two needs. This ambiguous situation opens many possibilities for different interpretations of norms and ultimately different implementations. The controversy around the right balance between Articles 19 and 29 in the real world is mirrored in discussions about achieving this balance on the Internet.

The main governance mechanism for addressing online freedom of expression is the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Protection of Freedom of Expression on the Internet (2012). NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House have developed numerous mechanisms for discussing and implementing freedom of expression on the Internet. Freedom House evaluates the level of Internet and mobile phone freedom experienced by average users in sample countries around the world. The latest Freedom on the Net study (2015) notes that Internet freedom worldwide is in decline, over half of the 60 countries assessed were on a negative trajectory, driven by broad surveillance, new laws controlling web content, and growing arrests of social-media users. While online activists have become more effective at raising awareness of emerging threats, they were also becoming increasingly targeted for harassment and technical violence.

Events

Instruments

Conventions

Link to: Convention on Cybercrime (Budapest Convention) | Part on freedom of expression (2001)

Judgements

Resolutions & Declarations

IPU Resolution: 'Democracy in the Digital Era and the Threat to Privacy and Individual Freedoms' (2015)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Recommendations

Other Instruments

Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS) (2005)

Resources

Articles

Freedom of Expression on the Internet Needs to be Weighed against Social Responsibility (2016)
The Digital Dictator's Dilemma: Internet Regulation and Political Control in Non-Democratic States (2014)
Trends in Transition from Classical Censorship to Internet Censorship: Selected Country Overviews (2012)
Policy and Regulatory Issues in the Mobile Internet (2011)
The Impact of Internet Content Regulation (2002)

Publications

Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
Securing Safe Spaces - Online Encryption, online anonymity, and human rights (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)
Analyzing Freedom of Expression Online: Theoretical, Empirical, and Normative Contributions (2013)

Reports

One Internet (2016)
Freedom of the Press 2016 (2016)
2016 World Press Freedom Index (2016)
Encryption: A Matter of Human Rights (2016)
Content Removal Requests Report (2016)
Global Support for Principle of Free Expression, but Opposition to Some Forms of Speech (2015)
Freedom on the Net 2015 (2015)
New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists (2015)
Government Request Report (2015)
Renewing the Knowledge Societies Vision for Peace and Sustainable Development (2013)

GIP event reports

Report for Violent Extremism Online – A Challenge to Peace and Security (2017)

Other resources

Internet Legislation Atlas (2016)
Security for All: An Open Letter to the Leaders of the World's Governments (2016)

Processes

Sessions at IGF 2016

Sessions at WSIS Forum 2016

Sessions at IGF 2015

IGF 2016 Report

 

Continuing a trend to keep human rights at the forefront, a main session at the IGF 2016 was dedicated to the topic (Human Rights: Broadening the Conversation). This demonstrates that the IGF has matured to a point where human rights (Dynamic Coalition on Internet Rights and Principles) are now accepted as an underlying unifying force (Mapping Digital Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: A New Visual Tool for Comparative Analysis). 

Freedom of expression was a cross cutting topics across various sessions focusing on human rights. The Freedom Online Coalition Open Forum discussed, among other issues, about the negative consequences that activities such as cyber surveillance and illegal interception of communications have on the right to freedom of expression.The implications of online extremisms and whether there should be limits to the right to freedom of expression to tackle this challenges were also discussed, and it was underlined that there is a need to to promote a counter-narrative strategy to prevent radicalisation and extremism online (Free Expression & Extremism: An Internet Governance Challenge - WS96). 

The impact of content control policies on freedom of expression and other human rights was also discussed (Sex and Freedom of Expression Online - WS164). As was underlined in several sessions, delicate balances need to be achieved between protecting the public interest (a concept whose under- standing varies across cultures) and preserving the right to freedom of expression. 

 

WSIS Forum 2016 Report

 

Challenges related to freedom of expression online were addressed in several sessions. Session 114 - Action Line C9 (Media): Promote Media Freedom and Internet Universality at the Heart of Achieving SDG Target 16.10 highlighted the goal to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’. Freedom of expression, access to information, and the safety of journalists were stressed as important foundations to achieving this goal.

Cooperation among different stakeholders was emphasised as crucial support for a strategy to implementation of Action Line C9 (Media). During one of the Moderated High Level Policy Sessions (session 223) also looed into the problem of freedom online, and it was said that in many countries civil society representatives have less freedom to do their work since their calls are being intercepted without their knowledge, or journalists are not being able to trust that their sources will be protected. 

IGF 2015 Report

 

Freedom of expression is a recurrent issue at IGFs, and this year’s IGF also served to revisit well-known challenges. Yet, the discussion has evolved over the years: what was previously a debate in favour of declaring online freedom of speech a right, has become a discussion on how to ensure that the right is truly respected – both online and offline.

The UN resolution which proclaimed that the same rights which people have offline must also be protected online marked the turning point in the debate. It was preceded by another important instrument: former Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue’s 2012 report and the three-part cumulative test, which has become a litmus test for the protection of freedom of speech.

Several workshops made reference to La Rue’s report, with discussions on various aspects related to implementing his recommendations. The workshop on Freedom of Expression online: Gaps in policy and practice (WS 153), for example, brought together groups to share their countries’ experiences of the implementation (or otherwise) of the cumulative tests and indicators mentioned in La Rue’s report.

Yet, various challenges still persist. While on one hand technology has increased the user’s freedom of expression, on the other there are several challenges ahead in adopting a framework for freedom of expression that can apply globally, which many are calling for. And in the open microphone and taking stock session, the need to prevent the Internet from becoming a tool of repression was once again emphasised.

In the main session on Internet Economy and Sustainable Development, access to information was discussed in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In referring to Goal 16.10, to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’, it was agreed that in order to achieve a holistic approach to the importance of ICTs and the Internet in reaching the SDGs, the social, cultural, and educational components must also be addressed.

 

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