Freedom of expression

Updates

Uganda is reportedly considering the introduction of a tax on social media use, starting July 2018. A proposal put forward by the government would see mobile phone subscribers charged 200 Ugandan shillings (USD $ 0.05) per day for accessing services like WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, and Skype. According to Quartz, telecom companies whose services are used for accessing over-the-top platforms will have to account and pay excise duty on the services they offer. It is, however, unclear how subscribers will be taxed for social media use (from a practical point of view), and how it will be determined when they access the targeted networks. According to the country's finance minister, cited by Reuters, the money collected through this tax are to be used to 'maintain the security of the country and extend electricity'. But human rights activists are concerned that the proposal is an attempt to limit freedom of expression.

According to the Kashmir Reporter, Jammu and Kashmir, India, have had 73 Internet shutdowns in last four years. The information comes from a tracker website,  maintained by the Delhi-based non-profit legal services organisation Software Freedom Law Centre. The tracker, Internet Shutdowns, 'shows that since 2012, the Internet has been shut down in different parts of India 165 times'. The site includes an update on recent Phagwara clashes: Mobile internet, SMS services suspended in 4 Punjab districts.

In another article, the Director-General of Jammu and Kashmir Police commented on the shutdowns, 'My effort is to ensure minimum disruption of internet. I am totally against it. But let me tell you there is mischief and misuse of it to spread hatred and false propaganda. This is what we want to prevent.'

In the UK, a judge has ordered Google to de-list from its Google search results articles about years-old crimes committed by a businessman, in another landmark decision on the so-called 'right to the forgotten'. The case at hand was brought to court by two businessmen who had previously asked Google to remove articles about crimes they had committed, arguing that the articles were a breach of their right to privacy, old, and of no public interest. Google had initially refused the requests, arguing that it was in the public's interest to provide information about the professional lives of individuals. The plaintiffs took Google to court, and, on 13 April, the judge ruled in favour of one of them, considering that the information about the crime committed was outdated and irrelevant. He ordered Google to remove the search results, deeming that the articles were of 'no sufficient legitimate interest to users'. Google announced it would comply with the ruling.

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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

Actors

(IPU)

In line with its objective to build strong and democratic parliaments, the IPU assists parliaments in building

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In line with its objective to build strong and democratic parliaments, the IPU assists parliaments in building their capacity to use information and communications technologies (ICT) effectively. In 2005, the IPU, together with UNDESA, established a Global Centre on ICT in Parliament, mainly aimed at promoting the use of ICTs in parliaments as a mean to increase transparency and effectiveness. The IPU has also been mandated by its member states to carry on capacity development programmes for parliamentary bodies tasked to oversee observance of the right to privacy and individual freedoms in the digital environment.

(UNHRC)

Privacy and data protection online has been the subject of many UNHRC resolutions.

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Privacy and data protection online has been the subject of many UNHRC resolutions. General resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights on the Internet have underlined the need for states ensure a balance between cybersecurity measures and the protection of privacy online. The Council has also adopted specific resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age, emphasising the fact that individuals should not be subjected to arbitrary of unlawful interference with their privacy, either online or offline. The UNHRC has also mandated the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy to address the issue of online privacy in his reports.

(UN OHCHR)

Challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age (such as surveillance and interception) are among the is

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Challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age (such as surveillance and interception) are among the issues covered by activities of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the request of the UN General Assembly, the Commissioner prepared a report of the right to privacy in the digital age, which was presented to the Assembly in December 2014. The office of the Commissioner also organises discussions and seminars on the promotion and protection of the right to privacy in the online space, and collaborates on such issues with the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

(FOC)

The coalition, which is committed to advancing Internet freedom, had formed multistakeholder working groups: A

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The coalition, which is committed to advancing Internet freedom, had formed multistakeholder working groups: An Internet Free and Secure; Digital Development and Openness; and Privacy and Transparency online. While all working groups worked on different aspects of Internet freedom, the Digital Development and Openness considered human rights online especially criminalisation of speech. The mandate of the working groups came to an end in May 2017 and was not renewed. In 2014, the coalition issued a statement on restriction on access to social media and in April 2017, one another condemning Internet shutdowns.

(CoE)

The Council of Europe has been actively involved in policy discussions on the issue of net neutrality.

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The Council of Europe has been actively involved in policy discussions on the issue of net neutrality. In 2010, the Committee of Ministers adopted a Declaration on network neutrality declaring its commitment to the principle of net neutrality. Later on, and in line with the Council’s Internet Governance Strategy, the Committee adopted a Recommendation on protecting and promoting the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life with regard to network neutrality, calling on member states to safeguard net neutrality in legal frameworks. Issues related to net neutrality and its connections with human rights are also tackled in events organised and studies conducted by the Council.

(APC)

The Association for Progressive Communications regularly participates at the UN Human Rights Council,

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The Association for Progressive Communications regularly participates at the UN Human Rights Council, to defend the freedom to use encryption technology and to communicate anonymously. One of APC’s strategic priorities for 2016-2019 is to ensure civil society actors and human rights defenders have the capacity to confidently use the Internet and ICTs, by means of privacy-enabling technologies.

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

Expert Workshop on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age (2018)
The Legal Framework for Countering Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online (2017)
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

Session reports

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WSIS Forum 2018

12th IGF 2017

WSIS Forum 2017

IGF 2016

WTO Public Forum 2016

WSIS Forum 2016

WSIS10HL

IGF 2015

 

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