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Human Rights 9 December 2014

Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers, Thematic debate on Freedom of Expression

By Constance Bommelaer de LeusseFormer Vice President, Institutional Relations and Empowerment

As a participant at the Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers thematic debate on Freedom of Expression, I made the following remarks:

The Internet has become a part of everyday life for about 40% of the world’s population and is still growing. The network is no longer connecting only computers; it connects everything from mobile phones to tablets and, tomorrow, to a growing number of everyday objects. Ultimately, whatever the devices we use today or tomorrow, the Internet connects people. 

Since the Internet was created in the early 1970s, it has evolved from a research project to become a central hub for communication, education and commerce for roughly three billion people. 

More than just a technical network, it has also become a tool for fostering democracy throughout the world. 

Obviously, many of us here would agree that the Internet is a key enabler of freedom of expression. In fact, some say it the most powerful amplifier of speech that has been invented to date.

To explore this claim in more detail, let us take a look at four primary aspects of Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 19 reads “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The first aspect is “EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT…”

When relating this aspect to the Internet, I am reminded of the Internet Society’s vision that the ‘Internet is for everyone.’ This means we care that the network empowers individuals. All individuals. As such, we at ISOC work hard to make the Internet as affordable and accessible as possible for everyone. 

For example, in many developing countries, poor connectivity between Internet Service Providers often results in the routing of local traffic over expensive international links simply to reach destinations within the country of origin. In those geographies, ISOC develops partnerships with local governments, NGOs and others to install Internet Exchange Points – otherwise known as IXPs. Doing that helps keeping local Internet traffic local, which makes for faster and more affordable Internet access.

Aspect number two is: “…TO SEEK, RECEIVE AND IMPART…”

On a network like the Internet, information flows can go in all directions seamlessly. Seeking, receiving and imparting are all actions that work without any barriers of hierarchy. In contrast to the broadcasting system, anybody can share and receive information on a level playing field. 

One great example of seeking, receiving or imparting information or ideas via the Internet is crowdsourcing. Now crowdsourcing as a way to deal with innovation problems has existed in one form or another for centuries. Communities of innovators have helped kick-start entire industries, including aviation and personal computing. The difference today lies in the scale and ease with which one person can take his idea and make it a great success.  

Aspect number three: “…INFORMATION AND IDEAS…”

The right to freedom of expression does not just apply to information and ideas generally considered to be useful or correct. It also applies to any kind of fact or opinion that can be communicated. The UN Human Rights Council has stressed that ‘expression’ is broad and not confined to political, cultural or artistic expression. It also includes controversial, false or even shocking expression. The mere fact that an idea is disliked or thought to be incorrect does not justify its censorship.

As such, states must ‘respect’ the right to free expression and not interfere with it. The right also places a positive obligation on states to actively ensure that obstacles to free expression are removed. 

From its very early days, the Internet has evolved through empowered users and communities, and its very success depends on it. While these basic features have clearly had a positive impact, there are also downsides to the Internet’s openness.

Jo Glanville, editor of the Index on Censorship has said that “the Internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as for free speech.” In recognizing the tremendously empowering nature of the Internet in relation to freedom of expression, she underscores some of the Internet’s greatest challenges: suspension of Internet access, slowing down of traffic through bandwidth capping, filtering of websites and/or of their contents. 

Beyond state censorship, which is usually reserved for authoritarian governments, there are also censorship challenges resulting from the actions of countries with strong democratic traditions: namely, the self-censorship that can result from pervasive monitoring.

The Internet is fighting back however. In the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) immediately announced that “pervasive monitoring is an attack on the privacy of Internet users and organizations.” Further, the IETF community expressed “strong agreement that it is an attack that needs to be mitigated where possible, via the design of protocols that make pervasive monitoring significantly more expensive or infeasible.” More recently, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) stated that encryption should be the norm for Internet traffic. We support this statement, which is an important additional step of ongoing efforts by the technical community to address the issue of pervasive monitoring.

And, finally, aspect number four: “…REGARDLESS OF FRONTIERS…”

The right to freedom of expression is not limited by national boundaries. States must allow their citizens to seek, receive and impart information to and from other countries. 

In the unrestricted and borderless space of the Internet, ideas become powerful agents of evolution and transitions. It is unquestionable that the Internet played a significant role in the Arab Spring. More recently are the demonstrations in Hong Kong where organizers used encrypted Firechat to communicate. In all the events that led to these uprisings, the Internet was a key instrument in helping to raise awareness and connecting people’s aspirations for social and political change.

Underpinning all of this is the organic relationship between the Internet and freedom of expression. This relationship is not one of mere chance, but rather the result of specific design choices and considerations that emerged from the development of the technology and associated protocols.

For example, the end-to-end decentralized nature of the network is a fundamental characteristic, which focuses on the edges rather than the center of the architecture. The Internet, by design, empowers users on the margins and acts as a democratic conduit. 

This open and global network is challenging to the existing international governance system, which is based on the sovereignty of the nation state. The very architecture and design of the Internet ignores the concept of national borders.

As a borderless technology, the multistakeholder model to governance has proven to be the best approach to deal with the complex issues related to freedom of expression on the Internet. This methodology brings together governments, business, civil society, and the Internet’s technical and academic communities. 

As part of the multistakeholder process, the Council of Europe’s Guide to Human Rights for Internet Users is a powerful document to reinforce the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. It should be presented as a contribution to the upcoming WSIS ten-year Review. 

We believe the Internet community has a role to play in keeping the Internet open and to work towards collaborative solutions. The Internet community is committed to open standards and policy development processes, to multistakeholder Internet governance, and to the Internet’s global and decentralized architecture. These key characteristics have contributed to the success of the Internet; they also contribute to human empowerment, progress and self-determination. We are looking forward to working with the Council of Europe to promote these shared goals. 

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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