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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON THE PROMOTION AND PROTECTION OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ON THE INTERNET

29 February 2012

The Human Rights Council today held a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression on the internet.

Opening the panel discussion, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the internet had become an indispensable tool for people to receive information and to become providers of information by offering a global and public online space where people could share their views and opinions, exchange ideas and make their voices and demands heard. As a result of those unique characteristics, the internet had transformed human rights movements as States could no longer exercise control by claiming monopoly over information. This had resulted in a backlash effect and intensified attempts to unduly restrict access to online content or the internet as such.

Riz Khan of Al Jazeera, acting as moderator of the panel, said that this panel was unique because it was the first time that the issue of internet freedom was being discussed comprehensively in the context of human rights. He noted the global context in which this debate was occurring and how the power of social media and the impact of citizen journalism during the Arab Spring had changed the role of the media industry.

Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, speaking as a panellist, said there was a need to protect human rights on the on-line world and internet freedom had become critical for the future protection of freedom and human rights around the world.

Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, speaking as a panellist, said that new standards on human rights were not needed because human rights principles and doctrines applied off line and on line and whether through oral, written or any other form of expression the same basic freedom of expression principles would apply.

Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, speaking as a panellist, said there were important social and cultural rights that the internet could support, especially in the area of education and using technology to promote and expand access to rights.

Carlos Afonso, Executive Director of the Centre of Research, Studies and Learning, NUEPF, Brazil, said Brazil was trying at the moment to approve a civil rights framework for the internet that incorporated rights to privacy and access which could be in conflict with other laws.

William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs for Google, said that the major challenge today was how to maintain freedom on the internet when currently 40 countries sanctioned the internet, up considerably from a few years ago.

Hesti Armiwulan, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia, said that financial constraints limited the right to access the internet and efforts should be made to reduce the cost of access.

In the discussion, speakers said that there should be no restriction on the flow of information on the internet, except when international human rights laws were threatened. A draft resolution and a convention for the protection of journalists were needed to protect bloggers. Speakers were concerned that States were filtering and blocking access to the internet to unduly limit freedom of expression. Questions were asked about what measures could be taken so that international cooperation could improve the infrastructure in developing countries, while reconciling issues like child pornography with freedom of expression? It was important to bridge the digital divide, but quality, access, utility and relevance of content should be equally ensured.

Speaking in the discussion were the Netherlands, Estonia, Cuba, Norway, Germany, Turkey, China, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Egypt, the United States, Uruguay, Honduras, Switzerland, Thailand, Ecuador, the European Union, Chile, Algeria, Council of Europe, India, Canada, Finland, Japan, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Press Emblem Campaign, Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, Human Rights House Foundation, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Internet Society also took the floor.


When the panel discussion ended at 3 p.m., the Council resumed its High-level Segment.



Opening Statements

NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in opening remarks, said that the internet had become an indispensable tool for people to receive information and to become providers of information by offering a global and public online space where people could share their views and opinions, exchange ideas and make their voices and demands heard. As a result of those unique characteristics, the internet had transformed human rights movements as States could no longer exercise control by claiming monopoly over information. Human rights defenders quickly claimed the audio-visual and crowd sourcing capacities that the internet offered to document human rights violations and shared them with a global audience. This had resulted in a backlash effect and intensified attempts to unduly restrict access to online content or the Internet as such. The High Commissioner expressed her concern that many countries blocked websites and some were contemplating delinking from the World Wide Web and replacing it with a more tightly controlled online space.

The internet could also be used for criminal activities; while there was a need to combat those and ensure that all users could be safe, there was a real concern that methods to identify and track down criminals might be used to crack down on human rights defenders. Also, some well-intended legislative initiatives meant to protect intellectual property rights might impose onerous obligations and liability on intermediaries to regulate online content and could stifle freedom of information. Those complex issues were not only technical in nature, but had profound policy implications. The High Commissioner therefore stressed the importance of the human rights impact assessment whenever the Internet policies were being deliberated. Sufficient safeguards must be put in place to ensure that no restriction on accessing online content was arbitrary or excessive. In conclusion, Ms. Pillay said that the freedom of expression on the internet required access to the internet in the first place and that its benefits could not be fully reaped as long as large parts of the world’s population lacked reliable and fast internet connections.

RIZ KHAN, Al Jazeera, acting as moderator of the panel, said that this panel was unique because it was the first time that the issue of internet freedom was being discussed comprehensively in the context of human rights. He noted the global context in which this debate was occurring and how the power of social media and the impact of citizen journalism during the Arab Spring had changed the role of the media industry. Mr. Khan highlighted the common link between human rights on-line and off-line and said that the international community could use the heritage and lessons learned in the field of human rights.

Statements by the Panellists

CARL BILDT, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, said that the panel at this moment was critical because of the rapid pace at which all countries in the world were adopting new technologies. There was a need to protect human rights on the on-line world and internet freedom had become critical for the future protection of freedom and human rights around the world.

FRANK LA RUE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in response to a question on to what degree was there a need for a new set of rights when it came to the internet and a need to redefine the rules, said that new standards on human rights were not needed because human rights principles and doctrines applied off line and on line and whether through oral, written or any other form of expression the same basic freedom of expression principles would apply. The internet brought an interactive form of communication and this gave it a special power.

ANRIETTE ESTERHUYSEN, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, in response to a question about what were the biggest risks in not finding a path for establishing clear human rights on the internet, said that the risk was the enormous loss of opportunity for Governments as new technologies provided States with an ability to expedite the protection and promotion of human rights. There were also important social and cultural rights that the internet could support, especially in the area of education and using technology to promote and expand access to rights.

CARLOS AFONSO, Executive Director of the Center of Research, Studies and Learning, NUEPF, Brazil, in response to a question on the challenges Brazil faced in promoting rights on the internet, said that there was great complexity in a democracy where sometimes laws conflicted on the rights of the internet. For example, Brazil was trying at the moment to approve a civil rights framework for the internet that incorporated rights to privacy and access which could be in conflict with other laws.

WILLIAM ECHIKSON, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs for Google, said that the major challenge today was how to maintain freedom on the internet when currently 40 countries sanctioned the internet, up considerably from a few years ago. Among the 150 countries where Google operated, in 25 countries Google’s products were either banned or blocked which was a worrisome trend.

HESTI ARMIWULAN, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia, said that financial constraints limited the right to access the internet and efforts should be made to reduce the cost of access. The Government in Indonesia was balancing rights and obligations in relation to freedom of expression on the internet with the need for the criminalization of certain acts on the internet.

Discussion

The Netherlands highlighted the threat to online freedom of expression and asked how citizens could get back on line when regimes, such as Iran and Syria, had blocked access. Although recent codes of conduct for corporations on the internet were welcomed there was concern about the wide availability of off the shelf surveillance software and the potential it had to violate the rights of civilians. Estonia said that freedom of expression had to apply regardless of the medium used to convey the message. Promoting internet freedom should be focused on outreach activities. Cuba said that there were many challenges around internet usage and highlighted that only 30 per cent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Furthermore, internet governance was not democratic but controlled by the United States. Norway said that the Arab Spring showed the incredible mobilization effect of the internet and how it could be used to violate the human rights of individuals. Today 60 countries were exerting some form of internet censorship. Norway asked about the trend regarding internet censorship and how should the United Nations and Governments work with corporations.

FRANK LA RUE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that the internet should be seen as a necessary element for the exercise of many rights in the socio-economic arena and to promote cultural diversity in the world. There was a rising intent to criminalize the internet and as a result there was a need for a decriminalization campaign for the internet. There was also a trend to transfer to the intermediates and internet service providers the responsibility to block usage and Mr. La Rue stressed the need for a multi-stakeholder dialogue to establish the acceptable mechanisms in blocking and filtering.

WILLIAM ECHIKSON, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs for Google, said that Google recognized it had responsibilities and if it was given a legitimate court order to bring down content then it would do this. However, Google every year published the requests received to either take down content or to disclose information on users so that this information could be available in a transparent manner.

Germany said it was concerned about reports of States’ blocking or filtering internet content and asked the panellists if they could address measures to make sure that the internet could be free of surveillance and censorship. Turkey said a main issue that arose from freedom of speech of the internet was access. Turkey had launched a national campaign of distributing electronic blackboards and tablets to all schools. China said that freedom of expression was not absolute and should be exercised in accordance with law and noted that the abuse of freedom of expression could not only violate human rights but also undermine social stability and national security. China called on the international community to promote access to the internet in developing countries and said that Governments should strengthen internet legislation in regards to criminal activities.

CARL BILDT, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, said that hate speech and incitement to promote hate speech should and could be stopped by the same laws on in the print media and in the internet domain. There was no reason why rules should be different on line than off line.

ANRIETTE ESTERHUYSEN, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications said that States should not opt for cheap alternatives such as restriction because in the long run there was a need for good laws and strong enforcement to make the internet viable and freely available.

France said that it was concerned about all forms of censorship and would not accept that judicial proceedings could be brought against individuals who had simply expressed their opinion on line. France was committed to fighting against hate crimes and said that it was important to have private sector individuals in the debate and asked what difficulties were encountered in ensuring the respect of international freedom of speech standards?

WILLIAM ECHIKSON, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs for Google, said that the basic framework of the law was good in Europe but stressed that corporations could not be held responsible to preview or censor what content should be taken down. There was a need for greater transparency on the type and amount of content that internet service providers were requested and required to remove from the internet.

Guatemala asked if there was a magic formula on how to regulate the internet without controlling it and who had the right to regulate the web.

CARLOS AFONSO, Executive Director of the Center of Research, Studies and Learning, NUEPF, Brazil, said he commended the report of the Special Rapporteur and noted that regulation was not simple and needed to take into account the particular characteristics of each country.

Peru said that it was concerned about current trends against freedom of expression on the internet and stressed the need for universal access to reduce the digital divide both within and among countries. Could the panellists elaborate on the relationship between intellectual property and copyright and the internet. Indonesia said that in 2011 although the internet was accessed by only 18.3 per cent of the population, Indonesia ranked as the second largest user of a famous social network with more than 40 million users. Could the panellists elaborate on how best to address the negative aspects of the internet such as blasphemy, child pornography and trafficking in persons while at the same time ensuring unhindered access to the internet for people?

Egypt said that the internet had played a pivotal role in the revolution in Egypt. The ability of demonstrators to organise themselves without leadership was remarkable. There should be no restriction on the flow of information on the internet, except when international human rights laws were threatened. The United States was concerned that States were filtering and blocking access to the internet to unduly limit freedom of expression. Uruguay said the internet had changed the form of education and improved access to information. Uruguay had undergone censorship but today freedom of education strengthened society. Honduras asked what measures could be taken so that international cooperation could improve the infrastructure in developing countries, while reconciling issues like child pornography with freedom of expression? Switzerland asked the panellists what measures were effective and feasible for protecting users.

Thailand asked how the promotion of the right to expression on the internet and adherence to home-grown, democratically governed protections could be balanced.
Ecuador asked what suggestions the panellists had for overcoming the barriers to access to technology for people with disabilities. The European Union asked the panellists to elaborate on how Governments should ensure that measures taken by intermediaries were in line with human rights standards. Chile said the challenge was to specify the scope of the Universal Declaration and of the Covenant, as all human rights needed to be protected. What could the Human Rights Council do for the system of protection to improve existing standards and how it could connect this with access to the Internet?

Algeria and the Council of Europe said access to the internet was a fundamental right of citizens and that Governments should do no harm in regulating it; the regulation should be a measure of last resort and self-regulation should be promoted. Japan agreed that arbitrary censorship and restrictions of access to the internet by States should not be allowed. India said that it was important to bridge the digital divide, but that quality, access, utility and relevance of content should be equally ensured. Morocco said that citizens should be protected from scourges found on the internet, such as cyber crime and others. Canada asked Google to expand on the best practices on working with the private sector, while Finland was interested in best ways to promote equal access to the internet, particularly for disadvantaged groups. Further, Finland asked about best ways to protect freedom of expression on the internet and what role the Human Rights Council could play. Azerbaijan asked what measures could be used to prevent the spreading of propaganda messages and incitement to hatred while respecting freedom of expression on the internet.

Press Emblem Campaign discussed access to the internet in conflict areas, and said that recently media staff had paid a high price to publish their work from conflict areas. Sometimes local reports were vital, especially when countries such as Syria, Tibet, China and Burma had closed their borders to journalists. A draft resolution and a convention for the protection of journalists were needed to protect bloggers. International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, said that national human rights institutions should provide education to promote tolerance and different opinions in society. Sometimes Governments and States had overreacted and used oppressive means to curtail freedom of expression on the internet. Human Rights House Foundation said it wanted to remind the panel and the Council about the Internet Governance Forum, which would be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in September 2012 with a focus on the role of the internet as a catalyst of change. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies called on the Council to look into the question of technologies used by repressive political regimes and private enterprises to affect freedom of the internet. The Internet Society said without open standards, the internet would not be the powerful catalyst it was for access to information, freedom of expression and innovation. However, Governments had the obligation to guarantee fundamental freedoms.

FRANK LA RUE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said there were technical fora where technical issues were discussed and this was the Council where human rights issues were discussed. It would be good to have some form of declaration of resolution allowing expansive use of the internet, Mr. La Rue said, adding that censorship was ultimately about political control. On the question of access to the internet, it was crucial to understand that it was a question of freedom of expression and the international community should strive to access for all the people. This should also be included in the Millennium Development Goals in terms of technology transfer.

ANRIETTE ESTERHUYSEN, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, said that Member States had articulated all the important questions and called on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other United Nations bodies to begin the process of including human rights on the internet in their daily work.

FRANK LA RUE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that several topics had not been solved including how to guarantee access in all countries, what type of decision making process would allow the internet to grow expansively for all people, and how to begin coordinating all the different fora focused on the internet to adopt a human rights focus.

CARLOS AFONSO, Executive Director of the Center of Research, Studies and Learning, NUEPF, Brazil, said that the statement made by Frank la Rue should be used as a base document for deepening the process.

HESTI ARMIWULAN, Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia, said the State had to take on the important role of encouraging freedom of expression and training, raise awareness and work with national commissions of human rights, civil society and universities.



For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC12/009E


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