UNHRC: States must stop pressuring private sector, and protect free expression online

UNHRC: States must stop pressuring private sector, and protect free expression online - Digital

ARTICLE 19 has delivered an oral statement responding to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, during a debate at the Human Rights Council (HRC). 

In the report, the Special Rapporteur launches a multi-year project to provide in-depth guidance on protecting and promoting freedom of expression online, identifying key players including states, regulatory bodies, ICT businesses, Internet Standard Developing Organisations, and others. 

For more info:

ARTICLE 19’s summary of the Special Rapporteur’s report

Russia: excessive restrictions to freedom of expression online highlighted in new interactive timeline

Oral Statement – Item 3 Clustered Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Delivered by Andrew Smith, ARTICLE 19  on 17 June 2016

Mr. President,

We welcome the Special Rapporteur’s excellent report, that is fully within his mandate. It provides essential guidance to this Council on how to ensure that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression”.

The Internet, though largely owned, managed and maintained by private companies, is our civic space. Legal and extralegal pressures on ICT companies, and the companies’ own actions, have profound implications for this space and our rights. 

We share the Special Rapporteur’s serious concern at the proliferation of laws to criminalise legitimate online speech, including in China and Nigeria. Criminal defamation, lese majeste, and blasphemy laws have no place online or offline, and must be repealed. National security laws, including on “violent extremism”, are frequently too vague and open to abuse, as in Kyrgyzstan. In the Russian Federation, and the European Union, the so-called “right to be forgotten” forgets freedom of expression, co-opting private companies to remove from scrutiny, without adequate safeguards, information the powerful would hide. 

Extra-legal demands from states on private companies to take down content, without regard to legality, necessity or proportionality, or due process, are a serious threat to free expression. Ensuring greater transparency in decisions by ICT companies to remove content, including on their own terms of service, is essential.  

Data localisation laws, to make information easier for repressive governments to control, as in the Russian Federation, violate freedom of expression. 

Efforts to weaken encryption, including through coercing private actors, must be condemned. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, “without encryption tools, lives may be endangered.” Encryption is essential to human rights defenders and others whose speech is illegitimately criminalised, including LGBTI people. 

Blocking of websites undermines the public’s right to know, including extrajudicial blocking, as in Malaysia, and administrative blocking, as in France. Internet shutdowns are a serious violation of human rights, especially in the context of elections, as in Uganda. We look forward to the mandate exploring how private Internet Service Providers can resist these measures.

We welcome the recognition that Internet Standard Developing Organisations and infrastructure providers have a role and responsibility to promote and respect freedom of expression, including IETF and ICANN. The importance of these bodies, as well as the full range of private actors in the report, developing transparent human rights impact assessments, cannot be understated and should be encouraged by this Council. 

We urge all States to support fully the resolution on Internet and Human Rights, including by incorporating references to the Special Rapporteur’s relevant recent reports in this field.