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 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 (2017) notes that Internet freedom worldwide has declined for the seventh consecutive year.