Civil society key to ensuring Internet free speech, says UN independent expert

Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

19 December 2012 – The credibility of the Internet depends on how much civil society – the broad label given to worldwide activism outside government – is able to take part in its evolution, a United Nations independent expert said today.

“Civil society participation is essential to ensure legitimacy of global discussions on the future of (the) Internet,” the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, said in comments on a recent global telecommunications conference that aimed to update a world treaty containing general principles for assuring the free flow of information worldwide.

“The only consensus reached so far on this matter is that the future of the Internet has to be determined in a multi-stakeholder dialogue, where no positions can be imposed unilaterally,” he added, according to a news release from the Geneva-based Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) convened the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in early December, as part of a wider mandate that sees it allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to international telecommunications technologies to underserved communities worldwide.

Attended by more than 160 countries, the conference aimed to update ITU’s International Telecommunication Regulations, which serve as a binding global treaty designed to make global interconnection easier, more efficient and more available to the public in a way that is useful.

In his comments, the Special Rapporteur noted that the Internet “vastly expands the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of expression, as well as other rights.”

As such, he said, any future focus on Internet governance by the Conference “must ensure the meaningful participation of multiple stakeholders, including representatives of other international organizations, human rights entities, private sector representatives, including Internet providers and non-governmental organizations,” the OHCHR release said.

“Global attention is required to ensure that no international or national regulations on the Internet pave the way for hampering freedom of opinion and expression through the Internet,” said Mr. La Rue.

“Unfortunately, legitimate expression on the Internet is already criminalized in various countries today,” he added, saying he had documented this in his 2011 report for the UN General Assembly on Internet-linked freedom-of-expression rights, and also in a 2011 report on Internet trends and challenges related to free-speech.

“International efforts must reverse this trend, not reinforce it,” he added of the information clampdowns.

According to the Special Rapporteur, ensuring freedom of expression and access to information on the Internet is central for the promotion and protection of human rights, and the strengthening of democracy across the globe today.

“Over the last two decades, the Internet has greatly contributed to expanding access to information on serious human rights violations, giving voice to millions who would be silent and invisible without the access to this powerful tool,” he said, adding that “discussion on any form of regulation or governance of this crucial tool must be firmly grounded in human rights standards.”

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs such as Mr. La Rue, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.


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