Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression discusses internet access with General Assembly
Friday, 11 November 2011 15:08


On 21 October 2011, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, presented his report to the General Assembly's Third Committee.[1] The report explores trends and challenges to the right of all individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the internet. In his oral statement, Mr. La Rue addressed this issue through two dimensions of internet access: access to online content and access to internet connection.


The Special Rapporteur highlighted the importance of the internet in enabling people to access diverse forms of information, which can provide them with enhanced knowledge, and enable them to participate in the democratisation process of their countries. Despite these positive effects, Mr. La Rue raised concerns about the use of increasingly sophisticated tactics to censor internet content, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals who express critical opinions in some countries. He urged all States to maintain the free flow of information and ideas on the internet and to ensure that the internet is made widely available, accessible and affordable.


Contributing to the ongoing debate on what types of content should be restricted on the internet, the Special Rapporteur highlighted differences between illegal content and content that is considered harmful, offensive, objectionable, or undesirable. He also shared best practices of countries implementing the right to access of information in an effective manner, including Brazil, Uruguay, Sweden and Botswana.


A dynamic dialogue followed the Special Rapporteur’s presentation.  The European Union (EU), the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Switzerland stressed the link between the exercise of the freedom of assembly and expression and a free and accountable democratic society. Switzerland underscored the pivotal role of the internet in times of demonstrations, stating that broad access to the internet can enable citizens to exercise their voice, which contributes to holding government to account.  The Czech Republic raised concerns about advocates and bloggers as targets of reprisals, and asked for Mr. La Rue’s views on bans and sanctions especially during elections.  Sweden lamented the censoring of internet content, and looked forward to a Human Rights Council panel in 2012 that would discuss the issue.[2]


Several countries discussed obstacles to facilitating internet access for all, including limited resources of developing countries. Algeria asked how to ensure internet access in countries where basic services, such as electricity in rural areas, are not readily available. Switzerland requested the Special Rapporteur’s views on how the international community can cooperate with the private sector to ensure internet availability for all, while Costa Rica pointed out that government policies were as important as resources in eliminating the digital divide. Syria complained about sanctions imposed by developed countries on developing countries and their effect on freedom of expression and opinion.


Other questions included: how to reconcile the right to privacy with the right to freedom of information (Norway); whether Mr La Rue had collaborated with regional human rights mechanisms and national human rights institutions (EU); and a request for elaboration on women’s participation and empowerment in relation to internet access (EU, Norway and the US).


Responding, Mr. La Rue acknowledged the significant differences between resources and level of access to the Internet in different countries. He cited this as a key reason why he bought the issue before the General Assembly, a body which deals with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He pointed out that countries, especially African countries, which lack sufficient access to basic services are addressing this issue through mobile technology. He reiterated the need for the internet to be a free public space where people exchange their views and stated that the majority of the world’s population still lack access to technology. Accessibility, he said, can only be fully ensured through the political will of States, and the only way to curb hate speech and other discriminatory language is through more open dialogue. He concluded by underscoring that public scrutiny is essential for a true democracy, and citizens and civil society must have the ability to participate and monitor the activities of the government.

[1] This was the second time th mandate reported to the Committee, following Mr LaRue’s  initial report on the protection of journalists and press freedom in 2010.

[2] At its 18th session in September 2011, the Human Rights Council decided to create a multi-stakeholder panel on freedom of expression on the Internet. The panel was organised in response to a proposal from Sweden, and followed the release of a report on the right to freedom of opinion and expression at the 17th session of the Council in May 2011.

Last Updated on Friday, 11 November 2011 15:29
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