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October 21, 2013
Day 0 of the IGF 2013 kicked off at Bali, Indonesia with several IG-pre events. Human Rights on the Internet: what are they and what do they mean in the context of Internet Governance was one of these events that took place and organized by the Association of Progressive Communicators (APC) http://hr-igf2013.events.apc.org/curriculum-resources/.
The session led by David Souter, aimed at making sense of freedom of expression and freedom of information, the limitations placed upon them in international regimes, how they relate to other rights among other human rights concerns.
Freedom of expression and freedom of information are known as article 19 rights and include “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of a person’s choice.” They are provided for in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of expression is usually looked at as an enabler of other rights for example as it enables people the freedom to participate in cultural life using their own language.
Additionally these freedoms are not absolute and carry with them duties and responsibilities, and may have restrictions. However, the restrictions must be afforded by law, be crucial and intended to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
The Internet is covered by article 19 rights. The Internet has provided more avenues for expression and access to information, and data aggregation, therefore impacting on freedom of expression and information, as well as rights of privacy. On the one hand the internet has enhanced the rights of expression and on the other hand it threatens the rights of privacy and other human rights. Such rights can extend to issues of privacy, expression of racial discrimination and children’s use in pornographic materials.
The Internet being a global resource makes it difficult for governments to control it but it should be noted that different governments have interpreted these rights in different. The Human Rights Council and the UN special Rappoteur have addressed the issue of interpretations and emphasized the need for these interpretations to be liberal, defined within the national law(s) and conform to the goal of article 19. They therefore should be proportionate with the purpose.
In extending the range of the range of opportunities for freedom of expression and access to content, the internet has implications for article 19 rights for example the increased plurality of information of expression and availability of content raises the challenge of validation of content. It is difficult to assess the truth of the content.
Other challenges include defamation where there is violation of reputation online, incitement, discrimination, hostility and even violence which is prohibited by article 19.
Governments use various mechanisms to suppress expression online such as shutting down of internet as it happened in Egypt during the Arab spring, intermediary liability, , surveillance, and website blocking. Others are filtering for example the close down of YouTube in some countries after some videos were found to contain anti Islamic content. The justification for the shutdown was that having such content online could incite violence.
The internet has considerably increased people’s ability to exercise freedom of expression but in the same breath has brought new challenges of balances between the rights, and the interpretation that relate to the scope provided by these very rights. This is a challenge that will continue since ICTs and the internet are dynamic and their changes enormous.