Login Login



Wanted articles
Who is online?
Article tools

The Internet, Freedom of Expression and Democracy - Connecting our Rights

The Internet, Freedom of Expression and Democracy - Connecting our Rights

Jump to: navigation, search

Responses - Civil Society

Joy Liddicoat, Association for Progressive Communications

Shirin Ebadi’s Internet and Human Rights proposition is well placed in this 2012 Internet Governance Forum. Human rights and the internet are referred to in the founding documents on the United Nations World Summit of the Information Society and the Geneva Declaration of Principles from which the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has grown. As the Azerbaijan government hosts the IGF in 2012 issues of the internet and human rights must be openly and freely discussed. Shirin Ebadi’s proposition, while useful, contains some concepts that need careful unpacking if we are to fully understand, explore and acknowledge the internet and human rights and the relationship between the two.


The Internet, Freedom of Expression and Democracy

The first is her statement that “freedom of speech is the first step to democracy”. In fact, freedom of expression, while a cornerstone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, only takes its full force for democratic change when we can exercise it together with all of our other rights and freedoms. Not only must we be free to speak, but to do so without fear, equally with all others, secure in our rights to privacy, freedom of association and dignity and in the knowledge that all our rights will be fairly upheld by the rule of law.

Ebadi’s proposition is that the internet has fundamentally affected how we give expression to our human rights. Yet while it is true that the internet has had some impact on rights, the impact is not only one way. Human rights have also helped to shape the internet itself, including its core architecture, since the values of freedom, openness and democracy underpin its most basic technical protocols and were hard baked into that architecture by the technical community which developed it.

Joy Liddicoat.jpg
Joy Liddicoat is a lawyer and human rights advocate who works for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). She was, amongst others, a Commissioner with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and is a member of the Pacific ISOC Chapter, the InternetNZ and chairs the board of directors of the Domain Name Commission Limited.

While it is also true, as Ebadi states, that the internet has increased the ability to exercise freedom of expression, it has, at the same time, made it more difficult to exercise other rights such as the right to privacy or to be free from discrimination.[1] The internet has also made it easier for some (including individuals and businesses as well as governments) to violate rights, a fact very evident in relation to women’s human rights. [2] The interaction between human rights and the internet is therefore more complex and nuanced and we ignore these complexities and nuances at our peril.

Internet Access and Human Rights

Ebadi re-states the now common misconception, that “What the United Nations have backed and declared, is that access to the internet is a human right, which is actually an ethical recommendation, and the ways to implement it should be established”. The United Nations has not “backed and declared” that access to the internet is a human right. Instead, Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, has simply stated that our human rights apply online including our freedom of expression, the right to privacy and freedom of association. [3] La Rue has also said that governments have an obligation to facilitate access to the internet and that such access has two aspects: access to infrastructure and access to content, and should develop national plans for internet access. [4]

Perhaps the real point is not whether or not access to the internet is a human right, but rather that ordinary people now simply demand it. This is a significant step forward and even in many so-called repressive or conservative regimes, internet access is actually expanding. A more serious concern is that, at the same time, the tactics to silence online expression are taking new and sinister forms. In Azerbaijan for example, tactics to intimidate, harass and detain journalists and bloggers, harsh penalties for online expression and other measures have resulted in a significant deterioration in freedom of expression in the country since 2009 with the current state of freedom of expression described as ‘alarming’. [5]

Yet, in July 2012, Azerbaijan, along with 84 co-sponsors at the UN Human Rights Council, confirmed the importance of the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, and in particular, freedom of expression online. And during the first Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record Azerbaijan rejected a French recommendation that it “ensure the full exercise of freedom of expression and of the freedom of all independent media, both national and foreign ones, regardless to their nature: press, Internet, radio or television” (France). [6] The point is that here at the IGF, and in other national, regional and global spaces, we must hold governments accountable for their actions and statements on human rights. Fine words are one thing: governments must also be accountable for their actions.

Connecting Our Rights

Since 2011 APC has been running its “Connect Your Rights! Internet Rights are Human Rights” campaign working with human rights defenders in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) with a simple strategy: hold governments accountable by bringing the voices of those who advocate on internet related human rights issues (particularly women’s human rights defenders) into this global advocacy space. The most surprising part of this work has been the absence of internet freedom advocacy within the UN HRC, despite growing awareness about internet rights issues. In 2012 the UN HRC convened an expert panel on freedom of expression and the internet, partly in response to the lack of thematic examination of internet related human rights issues. The panel provided a critical nexus between not only human rights mechanisms, but also other bodies (both within and outside the United Nations) dealing with internet governance and critical internet resources.[7]

Despite these positive developments, Ebadi is optimistic to think that “Once people are informed about events they will not stay indifferent and will claim their rights and hold their governments responsible”. While this is true in some contexts, the events of the so-called “Arab spring” have not been followed in many other parts of the world, despite the awareness of ordinary people. Governments have moved to stem the power of the internet and violate rights by carrying out surveillance, blocking and interfering with online content and targeting online journalists, bloggers and civil society organisations. Well publicised arrests and intimidation (such as the case of the Donkey Bloggers in Azerbaijan) has the chilling effect of self-censorship and stifling free expression even on otherwise open social media platforms.[8]

More people must connect their rights and take up internet issues. Action to resist the growing threats to internet freedoms is needed but to be effective all stakeholders must work together. The important participation and leadership from developing countries is increasing and can be seen, for example, in the growing innovative use of the internet and ICTs by grassroots activists to campaign for their rights and freedoms in the Africa and Asia regions.

It would be wrong, as Ebadi does, to simply categorise governments as either “democratic” or “repressive” and to attribute rights violations only to “repressive regimes”. While such regimes do indeed, as Ebadi rightly points out, carry out disturbing acts of violence against their own people, they are not along in doing so. In fact, a trend in the last year has been the rise in democratic regimes which are interfering with freedom of expression online whether in the name of national security or intellectual property rights.

The now annual resolution on freedom of expression and the internet paves the way to build on this and for solid progress in broadening and deepening IRHR understandings and commitments. But this will only happen if it is accompanied with some practical concrete actions to retain existing internet rights and freedoms and restrain violations. There is a need to foster broad consensus among governments on issues such as internet access, freedom of association online, best practice in monitoring and reporting on internet related rights violations, and to widen the focus from civil and political rights, to the full range of economic cultural and social rights.

Without such concrete follow up the opportunity will fall away. There are worrying developments such as the increasing use of content blocking[9] which suggest governments will continue to move more quickly than we can respond and that human rights mechanisms such as Courts will be unable to catch up with pace of change (which many are already behind). A key factor to countering this is a strong network of civil society groups who can monitor, advocate and take action to insist governments are accountable across the internet governance ecosystem.

While Ebadi points to the “ethical nature” of human rights, the reality is that internet activists see their online rights and freedoms being eroded on a daily basis. A major concern in relation to the internet and human rights is that governments might be positioning themselves to use the human rights framework to assert some moral or other authority to take more control of internet governance. For example, by asserting that as they are duty bearers with responsibility for the protecting their citizens’ rights, governments in general should have greater (and particularly decisive and controlling) power when they come to the table in multi-stakeholder forums.

The Internet and Human Rights in Multi-Stakeholder Contexts

In this regard, the strength of these human rights processes (consensus building among governments) is also its significant weakness, since these are not multi-stakeholder processes. More traditional human rights defenders frequently overlook or do not understand the important role of the private sector in internet related multi-stakeholder processes and how this impacts the internet and human rights, especially the increasing tension in the private sector’s role in relation to internet governance and human rights. This tension is driven by a range of factors including development of surveillance technologies which are sold to repressive regimes by companies operating in more democratic countries and the imposition of criminal and civil liability on Internet Service Providers for the online content of their customers.

At the same time, many governments are creating new offences (such as for intellectual property violations, libel and defamation), often with severe criminal and civil penalties, and are demanding private sector providers (both Internet Service Providers, telecommunications providers and social network platforms) assist law enforcement to locate and prosecute alleged offenders. In countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, the United States of America and[10], these provisions are being used politically to interfere with human rights and civil society groups are increasingly distrustful of private sector collaboration with governments. This is despite some good efforts for these pressures to be resisted. [11]

Private sector involvement in human rights discussion has been very limited, partly because the HRC does not generally allow private sector participation and partly because the private sector has traditionally eschewed engagement with human rights. But there has also been inadequate connection in the HRC between discussions about the new United Nations guidelines for business and human rights[12] and discussions about the internet and human rights. The inconsistent application of policies of internet related transnational private sector corporations as well as human right violations by them are being thrown into increasingly sharp relief. A recent example was the action taken by YouTube to take down a controversial film in some countries but not to do so in others, including Pakistan. This prompted the Pakistan authorities to block YouTube in the entire country, generating serious concerns and denouncements from local human rights defenders. [13]

The private sector will need to determine how it will engage in human rights and internet discussion to avert a looming crisis of confidence driven by both government and civil society concerns. For civil society activists, the lack of strong private sector engagement seriously affects their confidence in the internet as a space to claim and exercise rights. The principle of the universality of human rights is being undermined by the individual application of standards within national boundaries by private sector bodies and this is seriously damaging the application of human rights to the internet.


Ebadi raises some provocative and challenging ideas. Discussions about the internet and human rights must become more nuanced and more multi-stakeholder and cannot be left to governments alone. If as Ebadi states “freedom of speech is the first step to democracy”, then interference with such freedoms must surely be the first sign of repression in any nation. For this reason, human rights must be a main focus of all discussions at the 2012 IGF and the main theme in IGF 2013.

  1. David Souter “Human Rights and the Internet: A review of perceptions of human rights organisations” Report to the Association for Progressive Communications, May 2012.
  2. See, for example, Jac sm Kee “Emerging threads and common gaps: A synthesis” in EROTICS: Sex, Rights and the Internet (Association for Progressive Communications 2010)
  3. Frank La Rue “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (26 April 2011, A/HRC/17/27).
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Coalition submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review of Azerbaijan by the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan” 9 October 2012.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “Summary of the Human Rights Council panel discussion on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression on the Internet” A/HRC/21/30, United Nations, Geneva, 2 July 2012.
  8. Vugar Gojayev “The struggle for internet freedom in Azerbaijan” in Global Information Society Watch 2011 UPDATE I, published by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), 2012.
  9. See for example, “YouTube Blocked in Pakistan” http://pkpolitics.com/2012/09/17/youtube-banned-in-pakistan-2/
  10. See country studies and thematic chapters in Global Information Society Watch 2011, Internet Rights and Democratisation: focus on freedom of expression and association online, published by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), 2011.
  11. For example, the Global Network Initiative, an alliance of business and human rights organisations focused on protecting freedom of expression and privacy in information communications technologies: http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org/
  12. United Nations “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the Respect, Protect and Remedy Framework” http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf HR/PUB/11/04, United Nations New York and Geneva, May 2011.
  13. See for example, Bytes for All “It’s OurTube: Religion-based censorship will only fuel hate speech” Islamabad, 18 September 2012, available at http://content.bytesforall.pk/node/69
Gordon Süß
comments powered by Disqus