Two Unesco conferences on internet and human rights

By EDRi · February 9, 2005

In preparation for the second phase of WSIS, in November 2005 in Tunis, Unesco has organised two conferences on the Internet and human rights.

On 3 and 4 February Unesco organised a special meeting on online freedom of expression inside of the Paris headquarters. Attended by over 300 delegates from countries all over the world, the conference addressed the applicability of media-law, the limits to freedom of expression, the right of reply, the right to access government information and models of self-regulation.

The director-general of Unesco, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, kindly opened the conference with a strong speech in which he reminded everybody of the need to uphold the right to full freedom of expression, even in times of fear of terrorism. He stressed that this right does not distinguish between good or bad information, but is about the free flow of ideas, including for example racist speech, which should be debated in the open.

Thanks to frank questions from delegates about the need to regulate what they considered harmful content, an interesting and sometimes heated debate followed after most of the panels. Should there be any limits to freedom of expression or should speech be completely separated from action, and thus be left free, such as Spiked-journalist Sandy Starr argued? Many representatives from renowned human rights organisations such as Article 19 disagreed, pointing for example to screaming fire in a crowded theatre or threatening to torture somebody. But Gus Hosein from Privacy International pointed out that the case was about ‘falsely screaming fire’ and secondly, the Supreme Court Justice in the US who came up with that argument to set limits to freedom of speech only a few months later disagreed with it, and called for a protection of all ideas for the marketplace of ideas.

Helen Darbishire, director of the Open Society Justice Initiative presented interesting figures about access to government information. In 2004 she sent out 140 open access requests to government officials in 16 countries. A remarkable outcome was the fact that the new EU member states perform a lot better than the old democracies. In general, local authorities are more open than national ones, oral requests are usually ignored, and journalists, especially if working for a ‘neutral’ publication, tend to get much more information than citizens or NGOs do. Darbishire recommended strengthening of access to information standards when it comes to cost, to timeframes (preferably answers should be given within 10 to 20 days), and to information held by commercial and supranational bodies and corporations, such as for example the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations.

In the final panel, on codes of conduct, Hosein warned the audience how far we have drifted from the promise of free speech as enshrined in law and jurisprudence. Free expression is restrained through weakened legal protection (private censorship through ISP codes of practice and international co-operation), chilled through increase surveillance (access to traffic data and retention), and inattentiveness particularly in the WSIS process and calls for ‘balance’.

In the end, the Paris organisers were unable to solve the differences in opinion and decided not to produce a general statement or declaration.

The Dutch Unesco Commission also organised a conference on the Internet and human rights on 4 and 5 February, in Oegstgeest in the Netherlands. The Dutch conference addressed privacy as a pivotal human right, enabling freedom of communication.

Rikke Frank Joergensen, from the Danish Institute for Human Rights and EDRI-member Digital Rights Denmark, outlined the principles of positive and negative state obligations in an excellent keynote speech. WSIS should not just focus on the roll-out of technology, but on a positive agenda to promote human rights, starting with the off-line world. Many delegates during the first WSIS meeting in Geneva, she added, were very happy to talk about cables and nifty new technology, but not very keen on actually dealing with fundamental human rights. Joergensen also made it clear that it is crucial to be careful with metaphors to understand the Internet. It is both a medium, a media and a public place and cannot be understood by applying off-line rules from one of these domains.

Peter Noorlander from Article 19 stressed in his keynote speech that access to information is not a woolly concept, but based on hard human rights law. And it shouldn’t just address government information, but a much larger heritage of knowledge and ideas, to honour the obligations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all human beings have the right to freely “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Finally Hosein (present at both conferences) attacked the assumption of many politicians that there is a need to ‘balance’ privacy against security rights. By analysing three recent cases (the EU plans for data retention, the introduction of biometrics in passports and the confiscation of servers of Indymedia), he was able to demonstrate some more false assumptions, like the idea that international treaties are good and necessary and that technology means progress. In all, the false assumptions are leading us to a society where democratic checks and balances are removed, and rethoric seems aimed at reducing the democratic process by attacking its very legitimacy.

The Dutch Unesco commission will produce a set of recommendations shortly. These will not only be brought forward to the WSIS, but also presented to the Council of Europe. Initiated by the Netherlands, the Council is working on a new declaration on human rights and the Internet (See EDRI-gram 2.25, item 3). Concluding the conference, the representative from the Dutch ministry of internal affairs promised he would bring the conference recommendations to the table as an essential part of the Dutch viewpoint.

Unesco Paris conference site (03/04.02.2005)

E-zine Spiked


Article 19: global campaign for free expression


Open Society Justice Initiative

Privacy International

Digital Rights Denmark