Council holds panel debate on freedom of expression on the internet
Thursday, 08 March 2012 15:58


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held a panel discussion on the right to freedom of expression on the internet on 29 February 2012. The panel was moderated by Mr Riz Kahn of Al Jazeera English. Panellists included Mr Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden; Mr Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Mr William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs, Google.


There were several disruptive procedural points of order concerning the format of the panel, from Cuba and the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation made a pointed comment that this was a formal Council meeting and not a ‘TV talk show’ in reference to the panel's moderation by Mr Kahn. Similar procedural points have been raised during other panels at this session of the Council. As the Austrian vice-President made clear, the concept note for this and other panels had been available for some time, and States had therefore had sufficient opportunity to raise objections prior to the panel taking place.


There was a high demand for places on the speakers list. However, time constraints meant that only 26 States were able to speak, while 16 States, plus one NGO, were unable to take the floor. The Philippines took the floor at the end of the meeting to complain that it had not been able to speak, and implied that the Secretariat had not been entirely objective in compiling the speakers list.


The format of the panel, which may represent an emerging practice at the Council, saw panellists make several short interventions in immediate response to comments and questions raised by States. Again, however, the problem of time constraints meant that towards the end of the discussion the panellists' responses had to be placed on hold to allow as many States as possible to speak. As a result panellists were eventually limited to a final round of one-line concluding comments. These issues point to teething problems with this particular panel format, but overall it does allow for a more interactive exchange.


The discussion, which was the first on the issue at the Council, raised a number of interesting and relevant points on how States’ approaches to the internet and its regulation must focus on protecting human rights. Although the discussion was aimed specifically at the right to freedom of expression, States such as Honduras, as well as Ms Esterhuysen and Mr La Rue raised the role of the internet in promoting economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education, and the right to development. Panellist Carl Bildt stated that States who see only the potential evils of the internet are in fact restricitng their own society’s development.


In her opening adress the High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navanethem Pillay highlighed the particular risks faced by journalists. States such as Canada, the United States (US), and the Netherlands spoke of their concern at the harassment of bloggers and online journalists by some governments, and the need to provide them with training to allow them to work safely online. Recent events in Syria have thrown into sharp relief the risks faced by journalists in covering conflict situations. This was referred to by the Press Emblem Campaign in its statement on the importance of the internet in facilitating reports when borders are closed to journalists. The NGO voiced its support for the idea of a convention on the protection of journalists.


The Arab Spring was a repeated theme in the discussion, unsurprisingly, as an example of the power of the internet in documenting human rights abuses, and mobilising social movements. Egypt in particular spoke of the ’pivotal role’ of the internet in its own revolution, as a tool for organising peaceful protests, despite the attempt by the government at the time to impose constraints. The point brought in the issue of the right to freedom of assembly in relation to the internet, and shows this medium’s increasingly broad human rights role in modern society.


China made a statement on behalf of large group of States,1 stating that freedom of expression is not absolute, and advocating strengthening law enforcement in this area to prevent use of the internet to 'corrupt minds’ with pornography and violent content, decrease stability, and promote violence. These States placed emphasis on increasing efforts to ensure the internet is crime-free and ’social safety and stability’ are maintained, as a priority above ensuring free expression.


A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the idea that human rights, and their protection, should be the same in the online world as they are in the offline world. This view was endorsed by the United States and European Union. Mr La Rue placed particular emphasis on the importance of the phrase 'through any media’ in the right to freedom of expression as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).


The relevance of private companies in the debate was signified by the presence of a panellist from Google, and the problem of transparency from these companies was referred to numerous times by states, panellists and NGOs. Mr Echikson stated Google’s concern at sometimes being expected to censor, by itself, the information it provides, and likened its role to that of a postman who cannot be held responsible for the content of the letters delivered. He expressed the company’s willingness to comply with legitimate court orders for the removal of material, requests which it then publishes,2 but not to be held responsible to act as the censor themselves. This statement brought an interesting private sector perspective to the discussion, and Mr Echikson concluded by calling for other private companies to join in similar transparency initiatives. On a different side of private company involvement, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies described worrying evidence of the complicity of some companies in selling monitoring and blocking software to ’repressive regimes’, and expressed concern at their lack of accountability, with the private sector operating in a ’human rights vacuum’.


A number of important questions were posed by States during the debate, such as Norway’s question on how governments, the UN, private companies, and civil society can work together in this area. However, the problem of time constraints meant the panel was unable to offer any suggestions, and the discussion lacked any practical and constructive results other than to raise the many potential issues involved in human rights on the internet. This shows the need for further discussion of this issue at the Council. Mr La Rue expressed the hope that a debate could be held at some point resulting in a resolution on this issue.

1 Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ethiopia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe and People's Republic of China



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