UN Human Rights Council Rallies On Right To Internet Freedom Of ExpressionPublished on 29 February 2012 @ 11:56 pm
By William New, Intellectual Property Watch
With tension seeming to brim just beneath the surface, human rights officials from around the world came together today at the United Nations in Geneva to talk about ways to keep the internet open and nationally regulated at the same time. There were no decisions, and wide differences in views, but the first-of-its-kind panel might have laid the ground for future work on internet freedom and human rights. Intellectual property rights were mentioned several times.
The event was organised by Sweden, which was joined by European countries and others like the United States in highlighting the virtues of keeping the internet free and intact. These countries and other stakeholders seemed to be trying to bring broader awareness of the social and economic advantages of an open internet. Many concerns were raised about the increasing blockages and other uses by governments that reduce that openness – and human rights – through censorship, going after bloggers and dissidents, and other means.
The concept note prepared for the meeting said: “All States have an obligation to guarantee all individuals’ right to freedom of opinion and expression exercised through any communications medium, as stipulated in articles 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The meeting sought ideas about how to keep intact on the internet the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. It also addressed numerous other similar questions.
One after another, governments took the floor to state their commitment to the internet. And all saw the need for government involvement in some abuses of the internet, such as child pornography or terrorism. Every country seemed to have internal inconsistencies between what it said and its own past practices.
But there appeared to be a notable difference in how governments view freedom of expression online. All countries acknowledged the need for government involvement at times to keep bad things from happening online, some saw the online world as the same as offline when it comes to human rights, and that the same rights should be protected everywhere. Governments must adhere to international treaties and other agreed rules online too, they said.
Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt said Sweden has one of the most open policies in the world but still sees a need to intervene on some issues, such as hate speech. But one can get a court order and stop it, just as in the offline world, he said, adding that to clamp down on the internet is to harm a nation’s social and economic development as part of the world.
Frank La Rue of Guatemala, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said no standards are needed for the internet, as the ones that exist offline apply online as well. He said the Universal Declaration protected freedom of expression “by any means”. La Rue called on governments to stop the trend of using the internet for criminalisation, and the trend toward putting burden on internet service providers to be liable for content deemed undesirable at national level. La Rue also later said that abuses online must be clearly defined by law and follow due process, without arbitrary restriction. There are international instruments for every type of possible protection online, such as for children and women.
La Rue also singled out intellectual property rights like copyright, saying that those seeking harsher penalties for infringement may be infringing on human rights. What’s important is to have IP protection for a reasonable time, and with reasonable sanctions for violations, he said.
Google spokesman Bill Echikson said Google has regulations. “We don’t believe the internet should be the Wild West,” he said. If given a legitimate court order, the company will comply. But it will publish those on chillingeffects.org where they can be monitored. Echikson compared Google’s role to the postman, who he said should not be blamed if you do not like what was delivered.
Other countries took a stronger view on government intervention on the internet, saying repeatedly that freedom of expression on the internet is “not absolute.” China, speaking for a large list of countries, described the many reasons to control, monitor or block content online. Abuses of freedom of expression can encroach on the rights of others, China said. It listed the many dangers of freedom of expression online, such as terrorism, racism, xenophobia, gaining political advantage, and “violent information that corrupts people’s minds,” inducing them to engage in criminal activities. China also mentioned intellectual property rights.
[Update: the video of China's intervention is here.] China’s intervention was given on behalf of Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
The United States was criticised for keeping an upper hand on the global internet. Meanwhile, US company Google asked that it not be held responsible for content not in accord with national laws. And companies in general were urged not to sell surveillance and blocking technologies to governments to use against their people.
The panel arose from a September 2011 decision (number 18/27) “to convene, within existing resources, at its nineteenth session, a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression on the Internet, with a particular focus on the ways and means to improve its protection in accordance with international human rights law.”
There were several mentions of intellectual property rights as possible barriers to users’ rights online.
In her speech, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay mentioned the need for a “human rights impact assessment” whenever internet policies are deliberated. The assessment, she said, must consider users’ rights to access and disseminate information and their rights to privacy and security.
“It is important that any laws or measures that restrict access to online content are appropriate and necessary to effectively address genuine concerns. Sufficient safeguards must be put in place to ensure that no restriction on accessing online content is arbitrary or excessive,” said Pillay.
Pillay also aired some concerns regarding proposed legislations that are designed to strengthen enforcement of intellectual property rights.
“I also note that there are well-intended legislative initiatives, including those intended to protect intellectual property rights, which impose onerous obligations and related liability on intermediaries to regulate online content and could thereby stifle freedom of information,” said Pillay.
The Geneva-based [Note: it is headquartered in Reston, Virginia with a branch office in Geneva] Internet Society (ISOC) took the view that the success of the internet “is based on an open and collaborative approach to technology development.” ISOC manages the .org domain. [Correction: ISOC is a lead NGO advocating for an open internet and has links to the Public Interest Registry, which manages .org.]
“The core values of the internet pioneers are deeply rooted in the belief that the human condition can be enhanced through the reduction of communication and information barriers,” ISOC Vice-President for Public Policy Markus Kummer, the former executive coordinator of the UN Internet Governance Forum, told the room. “These unique enabling qualities of the internet should be preserved.”
Capturing the notion of a number of participants but possibly hitting home with governments of every description, Kummer said: “Governments have the responsibility to enforce the laws that are in place. However, they also have the obligation to guarantee fundamental rights. There have been many examples of technological measures used to restrict access to content deemed undesirable, without due regard to the potential impact on individuals’ capacity to exercise their fundamental rights.”
It was pointed out by some developing countries that only a third of the world’s population has access to the internet, and that literacy and financial resources are among the deep barriers to access.
The meeting began and ended with some tensions over procedure. Some countries took issue the format of having a panel of private sector and non-governmental organisations, with a television personality with no specific knowledge of the subject as moderator. And at the end, time ran out before many delegations could speak, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of some who felt they should have been among the first to be called on.
As to what governments and international bodies can do, one non-governmental group said there should be a mechanism to tell governments whether a measure is in agreement with international obligations, and a mechanism to inform them when a measure is not in agreement.
At the close of the meeting, the chair told Intellectual Property Watch that it would be up to member governments to decide if any next steps emerge on the issue. Any government could make a proposal, he said.
Intern Maricel Estavillo contributed to this report.
William New may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.