Freedom of expression

Updates

19 Jul 2017

China has partially blocked messaging platform WhatsApp. Although WhatsApp is not nearly as popular in China as the country's messaging service WeChat, the app is increasingly used by Chinese who are concerned about privacy and surveillance, as well as for communication with people abroad. While WhatsApp ensures encryption, WeChat messages are routinely monitored.

 

18 Jul 2017

A new report from Human Rights Watch Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression underlines new Russian restrictions on online speech and surveillance of online activity. The report also cites blocking of access to hundreds of websites purportedly as a means to fight extremism. The report calls on the international community to raise their concerns in discussions, and in dialogue with the Russian government.

18 Jul 2017

In a content censorship move which has even gotten comedians into the game, Winnie the Pooh has been banished from the Internet in China. Wider implications were drawn by Peter Hartcher's article From Liu Xiaobo to Winnie the Pooh, China's net censors can make you disappear, who wrote 'It may seem ridiculous, but for the Chinese Communist Party this is deadly serious.' WhatsApp has also seen recent restrictions in China.

  Chinese politicians side by side with Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh

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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 emphasised on numerous occasions that the right to freedom of expression online deserves strong protection. Issues under study in the first half of 2017 by the special rapporteur include protecting against censorship while addressing online gender-based abuse, and continuing blockages of Internet services around the world. 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 (2016) notes that Internet freedom worldwide has declined for the sixth consecutive year.

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

Realizing Rights Online: From Human Rights Discourses to Enforceable Stakeholder Responsibilities (2017)
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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