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(Jun 08, 2011) On May 16, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 7/36, submitted his report on global freedom of expression for users of the Internet. The report's stated purpose is to explore "key trends and challenges to the right of all individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the Internet." (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue [hereinafter Report], United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council, A/HRC/17/27 (May 16, 2011); Human Rights Council, Resolution 7/36: Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (Mar. 28, 2008), Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights [OHCHR] website.)

The report contends that the distinctive features of the Internet – e.g., its speed, relative anonymity, and global reach – which enable dissemination of information by individuals in "real time" and the capacity to mobilize people, have "created fear amongst Governments and the powerful." This has resulted, it states, in increased governmental restrictions on use of the medium by means of "increasingly sophisticated technologies." (Report, supra.)

La Rue stresses in the report "the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole. (Report, supra.) The report warns that government restriction of that right can constitute an infringement of human rights; most notably, of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which sets States Party obligations to guarantee freedom of expression. (Maureen Cosgrove, UN Warns Internet Restrictions Violate Human Rights, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (June 3, 2011); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (entry into force Mar. 23, 1976), OHCHR website (last visited June 6, 2011).)

Among the six chapters of the report are those covering "the applicability of international human rights norms and standards on the right to freedom of opinion and expression to the Internet as a communication medium" and "the exceptional circumstances under which the dissemination of certain types of information may be restricted" (Ch. III); access to Internet content (Ch. IV); and access to the physical and technical infrastructure of required to use the Internet, including the issue of universal access (Ch. V). (Report, supra.) La Rue included, as exceptions to the right to freedom of expression, "types of expression that infringe on the rights of others, like child pornography, hate speech and defamation." (Cosgrove, supra.)

Chapter IV addresses in particular some of the means used by governments to censor information online: arbitrary blocking or filtering of content; criminalization of legitimate expression; imposition of intermediary (e.g., service providers) liability; disconnecting users from Internet access, including on the basis of intellectual property rights law; cyber attacks; and inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection. In particular, the Special Rapporteur opines:

the arbitrary use of criminal law to sanction legitimate expression constitutes one of the gravest forms of restriction to the right [of freedom of expression], as it not only creates a "chilling effect", but also leads to other human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention and torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (Report, supra).

He singles out, as a clear example of criminalization of legitimate expression, the imprisonment of netizens around the world in 2010 (based on a Reporters Without Borders study, which reported nearly 120 bloggers, Internet users, and cyber dissidents imprisoned worldwide), with the largest numbers in China (72), Vietnam (17), and Iran (13). (Id.; Reporters Without Borders, ENEMIES OF THE INTERNET – COUNTRIES UNDER SURVEILLANCE (Mar. 12, 2010).)

Chapter V, in addressing the issue of universal access and the "digital divide," takes note of various efforts around the world to reduce that gap. Examples are legislation or court opinions essentially making Internet access a fundamental right, in Finland (2000), France (2009), and Costa Rica (2010), and "[g]oing a step further," a Finnish decree of 2009 "stating that every Internet connection needs to have a speed of at least one Megabit per second (broadband level)." (Id.)

The (then) United Nations Commission on Human Rights established the Special Rapporteur's mandate on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in 1993. After the Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights, the new body extended the mandate for another three years, in its 2008 Resolution 7/36. Under Resolution 16/4 of the Human Rights Council, adopted on March 24, 2011, the Special Rapporteur's mandate was extended for another three-year period. (Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, OHCHR website (last visited June 6, 2011).)

Author: Wendy Zeldin More by this author
Topic: Communications More on this topic
Jurisdiction: United Nations More about this jurisdiction

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Last updated: 06/08/2011