Several human rights associations, the Organization of American States and a UN Committee have released two landmark documents on protecting free expression and the free flow of information on the Internet. The Computer & Communications Industry Association strongly endorses both documents and urges UN member states and the world’s governments to implement their provisions in national legal and regulatory frameworks.

The “Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet” calls on nations around the world to recognize that “freedom of expression applies to the Internet, as it does to all means of communication.” CCIA President & CEO Ed Black said, “The Internet has become the most efficient tool for communications, organizing around causes or political movements and access to information on education, jobs, goods and services. Internet freedom is nothing less than freedom of expression in the 21st century.”

“Internet freedom is a human rights issue and we applaud these organizations for drafting a model that countries which understand the social and economic value of free expression on the Internet can use to ensure they align their policies on the side of freedom and openness,” Black said.

“The reports wisely recognize that serious threats to Internet freedom come not just from intolerable direct assaults such as the shutdown of national access to the Internet as recently undertaken by Egypt and Syria, but also from overzealous efforts to address various problems such as copyright infringement. This minimizes other important values and legitimate interests in pursuit of a “perfect” world. Since perfection is never achievable -online or offline- the demand for ever expanding restrictions on Internet freedom must be resisted,” Black said.

“Censorship-type restrictions, which chip away at Internet freedom for so many reasons, whether sweeping or incremental, are a dangerous trend.  Freedom is relinquished more easily than it is reclaimed,” Black said.

Some of the notable points made in the document include:

  • That Internet platforms and other intermediaries who provide access to information and content generated by others must be protected from liability.
  • That content-filtering systems imposed by governments or companies are not justifiable and that blocking of websites and other services must only happen in accordance with international standards — such as protecting children.
  • That those seeking legal redress for content posted about them be limited to filing suit in nations where cases have a “real and substantial connection,” rather than engaging in so-called “libel tourism” — in which legal cases are brought against content providers in countries whose laws enable more favorable settlements to plaintiffs.
  • That “discrimination in the treatment of Internet data and traffic” is unacceptable and that Internet Service Providers and others must be transparent about practices that affect Internet traffic flows.
  • That nations have an “obligation…to promote universal access to the Internet” and to refrain from cutting off or slowing down access to the Internet.

The text of the Joint Declaration is available in the following languages. Spanish: the OAS site or the OSCE site. In Russian: OSCE site.

On almost the same day, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression of the UN Human Rights Council issued a clarion call to the nations of the world, congruent with the Joint Declaration, to ensure the Internet remains free and open. Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue argued in his Report to the Human Rights Council that Internet access is a human right and restricting the flow of information via Internet blackouts is unacceptable.

For the developing world, it views the Internet as a crucial tool for reducing inequality and enabling social and economic development. In the developed world, it opposes “three strikes” Internet laws, which are designed by governments to discourage Internet file-sharers but which CCIA believes are both ineffective and dangerous —  a slippery slope to censorship and governmental monitoring of free speech.

Here are a few of the more important points in the Report:

  • Restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet are acceptable only in the rarest of occasions when prescribed by law and  pursue a legitimate purpose recognized by international law.
  • ISPs that provide a platform for free expression cannot be held liable for illegal or harmful content generated by third parties.
  • Mandatory blocking of websites, IP addresses, ports, network protocols is an extreme measure, analogous to the prohibition of a newspaper or radio or television station, which only could be justified under international standards, for example, when necessary  to protect minors from sexual abuse.
  • Jurisdiction over cases related to Internet content should be left exclusively to the States with which such cases present the closest contacts, usually because the author lives in that state, the content was posted from there and / or it is directed  specifically to the State.
  • States have an obligation to promote universal access to the Internet to ensure the effective enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression as well as the other rights, including the right to education, health care and labor law of assembly and association and the right to free elections.
  • The denial of the right of access to the Internet, as a punishment, is an extreme measure that could only be justified when no other less restrictive mechanism is available and where judicial processes take into account the impact on the exercise of human rights of such a decision.

The Report is being considered by the world’s governments at the 17th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, taking place from 30th May to 17th June of this year. CCIA calls upon all member-states to endorse the Report and adopten its principles in their legislative and regulatory frameworks. The report can be read in full here. For more information on the work of the Special Rapporteur, see http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx.

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