“The Global Network Initiative (GNI) welcomes the decision by Congressional leaders to postpone immediate consideration of proposed intellectual property legislation in the Senate and House of Representatives. GNI supports the goal of protecting intellectual property online, but we firmly believe that the approach used in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect-IP (PIPA) is flawed and poses an unacceptable threat to global online freedom of expression and innovation.
We are encouraged by the worldwide outpouring of concern around these issues and urge Congress to adopt an inclusive and transparent approach as it considers how legislation might effectively protect intellectual property and uphold fundamental rights to free expression online. As the U.S. government considers alternative measures, the companies, civil society organizations, investors, and academics that make up GNI collectively recommend a transparent approach that not only includes content and Internet companies, but also civil society organizations and representatives of the users of the Internet.
The interconnected nature of the Internet means that a well-intended but narrow effort to address one set of problems can have serious unintended consequences on the integrity of the Internet and the rights of its users. Crafting effective legislation on technology requires the engagement of diverse stakeholders, especially those with deep understanding of both technical and human rights considerations.
The global implications of U.S. legislation merit particular attention, as laws and policies developed in Washington can serve as precedent or justification for those of other countries, with the potential to undermine the Internet’s capacity as a tool for protecting and advancing fundamental freedoms. With this in mind, we encourage the careful assessment of the global impact of proposed legislative provisions on human rights, especially freedom of expression and privacy.”
From a UN report on the right to freedom of expression and the Internet:
“In recent months, we have seen a growing movement of people around the world who are advocating for change – for justice, equality, accountability of the powerful and respect for human rights. The Internet has often played key a role in such movements by enabling people to connect and exchange information instantly and by creating a sense of solidarity,” said UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, when presenting his annual report to the UN General Assembly.
The Internet has become a vital communications tool which individuals can use to exercise their right to freedom of expression and exchange information and ideas. Still, La Rue noted that in some countries where Internet access is widely available, online content may be heavily restricted. In other countries, where online content is not restricted, the Internet may not be accessible to the majority of the population.
The Special Rapporteur reminded States that, as a general rule, they must ensure that everyone enjoys his or her right to freedom of opinion and expression by maintaining free flow of information on the Internet, and ensuring that the Internet is available, accessible and affordable to all. However, La Rue recognized that freedom of expression can be restricted in very exceptional cases in line with international human rights instruments.
“Any restriction must be established by law and be in accordance with international standards; must pursue legitimate grounds for restriction as set out in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and be proven to be necessary and proportionate,” stressed La Rue. “Expression such as child pornography, incitement to genocide, advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and incitement to terrorism are all prohibited under international law.”
The Rapporteur advised that decisions to regulate content, such as blocking web sites, must be taken by a competent judicial authority independent of political, commercial or other unwarranted influences. He also recommended that all other types of expression which do not fall under the four exceptional cases delineated above be decriminalized to fully guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
“Governments are using increasingly sophisticated technologies and tactics which are often hidden from the public to censor online content and monitor and identify individuals who disseminate critical or sensitive information, which frequently lead to arbitrary arrests and detention,” La Rue said.
To reduce the digital divide between populations and allow indigenous peoples and linguistic minorities to participate in a truly global society, the UN expert recommended that websites be translated into multiple languages. Moreover, Internet literacy skills should also be included in school curricula and taught to all children at an early age.
“Three-quarters of the world’s population lacks access to the Internet,” La Rue noted. “Although Internet access is not yet recognized as a right in international human rights law, States have a positive obligation to create an enabling environment so that all individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. This includes putting in place a concrete and effective policy and the political will to ensure universal access to the Internet”.”
More on Frank La Rue’s work as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on the Internet is available here.
Excerpts from TechCrunch guest post by Richard Fontaine, a Senior Advisor at the Center for a New American Security and the co-author (with Will Rogers) of Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age:
“As an ever greater proportion of human activity is mediated through Internet-based technologies, the extent of our online rights — and what we really mean by “Internet freedom” — will take on greater importance in political and economic life. After a year in which new communications tools were used to dramatic effect throughout the Middle East, and at a time when autocratic governments are cracking down against online freedom, it is worth pausing to get straight the concept so many hold dear.
We might start by distinguishing between two linked but distinct concepts: freedom of the Internet and freedom via the Internet. Freedom of the Internet refers to the ability to engage in unfettered expression in cyberspace. This vision of Internet freedom, as scholar Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, represents freedom from something: censorship, government surveillance, DDoS attacks, and so on. The principles undergirding freedom of the Internet are articulated in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes as inalienable the right to receive and impart information without interference, “throughout any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In this sense, Internet freedom is little different from the notion of free expression, whose advocacy has been an element of U.S. foreign policy for decades. After all, American ambassadors have long pressed foreign governments to allow a free press, release jailed journalists and cease jamming unwanted broadcasts.
Freedom via the Internet is at once both a more alluring and complicated idea. Its advocates suggest that more online freedom can lead to more offline freedom; that is, the free flow of ideas over the Internet promotes democratization. Anyone who witnessed the Arab Spring cannot fail to be moved by the use of new communications tools by protestors to foment political change – nor by the desperate attempts by Mubarak’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, and others to stop them from doing so.
Then there is Internet access itself. While taking away the ability of individuals to engage in legitimate online expression seems clearly to represent a human rights violation, it is difficult to view governments that fail to provide broadband for their populations as human rights violators.
It is important that those who care about Internet freedom achieve a measure of conceptual clarity, because those who would abridge it are using definitions for their own ends.”
“None of this will be easy. Even some of America’s closest democratic friends have views of Internet freedom that are more restrictive than those widely held in the United States. Witness recent attempts by the government of India to have key Internet companies remove objectionable content or restrictions in Europe on online speech that insults population groups. But the effort begins with getting straight precisely what we mean by “Internet freedom.” The idea – and the reality – is too important to muddle.”
Read Richard Fontaine and Will Rogers’ report Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age here.