Future Thinking: Harlem Désir on Freedom of Expression Online Thumbnail
Internet's Future 9 January 2018

Future Thinking: Harlem Désir on Freedom of Expression Online

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed two people – the new OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and an emerging leader from Brazil, an Internet Society 25 Under 25 awardee – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet’s future: Harlem Désir and Paula Côrte Real.

Harlem Désir is the Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media. Prior to his current position, Désir was French Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, and a member of the European Parliament for three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2014.

(You can read Paula Côrte Real’s interview here.)

The Internet Society: What could impact the future of freedom of expression online?

Harlem Désir: There is an ongoing shift under our feet which could result in a less open, global, and free Internet. A combination of factors, including legitimate security concerns in the fight against terrorism or the fight against hate speech and extremism, could lead to disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression. It comes with a regression of democratic values in some countries and can result in a situation where more states will be shutting down, blocking sites or platforms, filtering content, and throttling access to the Internet.

Such measures are frequently undertaken with the assistance of or following pressure upon Internet intermediaries on the basis of national security or maintaining the public order. Such reasons are often not genuine or restrictions on freedom of expression online are overbroad. In addition, mass and targeted surveillance of online communications has the effect of “chilling” the online expressions of individuals, notably journalists whose communications with their sources ought to remain confidential as a matter of international and European law, as well as others, such as members of vulnerable groups including LGBTI communities. Finally, journalists, bloggers and other communicators online, particularly if they are female, are increasingly subject to online abuse and harassment, which puts pressure on them to self-censor and distorts democratic debate.

What are the responsibilities of social networks to protect/promote digital rights?

The defence and the promotion of freedom of expression on the Internet, including through social media, has become one of the most important activities of my office. All actors, including Internet intermediaries, have a responsibility to protect fundamental human rights. The distribution of and access to information depend now for most citizens on very few actors like Facebook and Google. These organizations hold a huge power of distribution of information and content. Within a few years, intermediaries have become gatekeepers to the exercise of fundamental human rights, like freedom of expression and information in the online space. Reportedly, Facebook deletes tens of thousands posts per week. This is very concerning and leads to a key question: how safe is media freedom in the hands of intermediaries, when there is limited transparency on the rules and procedures?

At minimum, Internet intermediaries, including social media companies, ought to adopt clear and transparent policies (such as terms of service and community guidelines) and information for how they will be implemented so that individuals can reasonably foresee whether their content is likely to be edited or removed or otherwise affected, or user data is likely to be collected, retained, or passed to law enforcement authorities. Furthermore, such intermediaries should also respect minimum due process guarantees by notifying users when their (the users’) content is taken down or otherwise affected, giving them opportunities to challenge such actions. Finally, Internet intermediaries should support fact-checking initiatives, in cooperation with media organisations, for instance.

How do policymakers balance “competing” rights online, such as protecting citizens, while promoting digital rights?

Policymakers should properly balance “competing” objectives online – notably, freedom of expression on the one hand, and security, equality, and the fight against hate speech on the other – just as they should do offline. This means that any restrictions on freedom of expression online should be provided by law, genuinely serve a legitimate interest, and be necessary in a democratic society. At the same time, there should be a public policy framework for pluralism and equality, the promotion of intercultural understanding by the state, as well as other actors including the media.

How do you see emerging technologies, such as IoT or AI, impacting freedom of expression

Artificial intelligence can pose formidable challenges to freedom of expression, including access to information. It poses questions pertaining to the issue of due process and transparency as we are already observing with reliance on algorithms on social media platforms.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

My hope is that we can successfully defend a global, open and interoperable Internet, and ensure universal access to Internet. My fear is that the Internet as the greatest ever public forum for the exercise of freedom of expression and access to information will be limited and made more exclusive, depending on such factors as which state one lives, how much money one has and one’s identity. I am most fearful of threats to the principle of net neutrality and also to the rights of certain groups – women, minorities, and LGBTI individuals in particular.

What do we need to do today to ensure freedom of expression in the future?

Freedom of expression seems to be pitted against security interests and the wellbeing of our societies in how states frame public policy choices. First, we need to reject the notion that freedom of expression and human rights are detrimental to the security of our societies. I believe the opposite: freedom of expression and human rights positively contribute to security and other interests in our societies. This is also the comprehensive security concept of the OSCE since the adoption of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. We must advocate and raise public awareness of the importance of freedom of expression – for democracy, for finding the best answers to society’s most pressing challenges, for individuals’ and societies’ self-realisation. Second, we must hold states to account for imposing illegitimate and unnecessary restrictions on freedom of expression online. Third, we must urge Internet intermediaries to be more transparent about their approaches to taking down content online and also about the nature of their relationships with states.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how connectivity might transform media and societies across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Internet Society.
Photo: OSCE/Micky Kroell


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

Related articles

Internet's Future 22 April 2024

The Internet and Climate Change

As we celebrate Earth Day 2024, the world seems to be on fire. Quite literally with some regions battling...

Internet's Future 2 December 2021

Notes from Madagascar: What It’s Like to Be Affected by the Digital Divide

How can a country with high Internet speeds and comparatively low prices be impacted by the digital divide?

About Internet Society 19 August 2021

A Partnership to Advance Digital Rights and Internet Development in Africa

The Internet Society and CIPESA have commited to work together for an open, secure, and trustworthy Internet for Africa.