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Human Rights 3 December 2014

Freedom of expression online: finding the appropriate balance

Nicolas Seidler
By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor

Every new communication technology requires us to rethink the delicate balance between fundamental rights. Freedom of expression, privacy and security are all part of a fine equilibrium that has been altered from the conditions that prevailed in the pre-Internet era.

In Hungary, where I recently participated in a session* about freedom of expression online, it was easy to see how concrete the Internet has become for people’s lives: some two weeks earlier, thousands of people in Budapest protested against the proposed introduction of a new tax on Internet traffic. Among other concerns, many objected that such a tax would generate unacceptable barriers to people’s ability to seek, receive and impart information and ideas online.

The reason I participated in this conference – and the reason that the Internet Society cares about human rights – is that our organisation was founded on the core belief that “the Internet is for everyone.” This simple sentence means not only that we are working hard to ensure people can access the Internet across the globe and that the Internet is secure and resilient thanks to interoperable technical standards; it also means that we believe the Internet should be a tool that empowers users with equitable opportunities for economic, social and personal development. 

Back in the 1970s, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn (who are also the founders of the Internet Society), invented the TCP/IP protocol. This technical standard founded the core principles of an interoperable and interconnected network of networks, able to connect billions of individuals across frontiers. 

Today, more than 3 billion people, or around 40% of the world’s population, are connected. The impact of the Internet is not only widespread, it is also profound. In a survey of Internet Society members across the globe, 98% agreed that the Internet is essential for their access to knowledge and education. In addition, 86% agreed that freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the Internet.

The Internet has had a tremendous impact on the existing balance between rights; as a result of its enabling power in favour of free information flow, the Internet has created new tensions as part of the complex relationship between freedom of expression, privacy and security. 

For example, pervasive surveillance programs were widely discussed during the session in Budapest. This is not surprising as this issue seems to capture the tension between those three dimensions: national security objectives (security), use of personal information (privacy), and monitoring of people’s communications (freedom of expression). 

Achieving the appropriate equilibrium, while avoiding too many tradeoffs between these rights, is a real challenge, especially on a borderless platform such as the Internet. It will require the Internet community and the rights community to continue working closely together. Issues of freedom of speech online are not solely “rights issues” or “Internet issues”; they are located somewhere in the middle and will need to be addressed by all stakeholders. Human Rights have become a stable issue as part of the Internet Governance discussions, whether at the annual Internet Governance Forum or in the NETmundial outcomes last April.

On the technical front, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has lost no time addressing some of the most critical technical issues impacting privacy and freedom of speech. At its latest meeting, the engineering group (through the voice of the Internet Architecture Board), released a statement in support of the confidentiality of Internet communications. In the next few months, engineers from around the world will focus on deploying security solutions that provide better and more mainstream encryption and privacy for online communications.

The Internet Society will take an active role in facilitating and participating in the conversations required to address these challenges going forward. We consider this an important step in our work to ensure that the Internet remains a favorable ground for users’ empowerment online. 

* 7th Human Rights Forum in Budapest, 20-21 November 2014, hosted by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

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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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