UN report examines online censorship

By EDRi · June 1, 2011

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Deutsch: [UN-Bericht nimmt Online-Zensur unter die Lupe |]

The right to seek, receive and impart information, and the right to express
oneself freely – rights which enable the exercise of a range of other human
rights – are increasingly being limited by impediments in online
communications, according to a report by the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of
opinion and expression, Frank La Rue.

EDRi took part in an expert group that supported the Special Rapportur’s
preparation of the report, which looks at prevailing tendencies in global
online freedoms. It will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council this

The report draws attention to mounting evidence that international
Internet-related policy and domestic regulations are failing to recognise
and respond appropriately to the changing makeup of public space in which
free speech is exercised. It reminds governments of their positive
obligation to protect these rights in a digital environment, denouncing the
surge in measures criminalising legitimate online expression. Some of the
findings include inadequate data protection and a “worrying trend of States
obliging or pressuring private actors to hand over information of their

It also reminds members of the international community that the States’
responsibility to protect the rights of users also entails a duty to
investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of cyber-attacks directed at the
websites of organizations and individuals documenting government abuses.

Expressing “deep concern” about the growing number of laws that are enabling
monitoring, filtering and control of online content, the Special Rapporteur
concludes that these are often largely out of synch with their purported
aims. Increasingly sophisticated means of blocking content deemed to be
illegal are being introduced and implemented without the involvement of an
impartial regulatory body or a court order. Appropriate safeguards against
abuse and the means to challenge unwarranted interference were also often
found to be absent. This situation may result in the censorship of a
considerable amount of legal online material.

The report also raises a number of important issues concerning intermediary
liability, identifying some of the serious implications of offering the
private sector “unprecedented influence over individuals’ right to freedom
of expression and access to information.”

“Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by
their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of
opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad
private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of law.”

While praising legislative measures such as those introduced in Chile and
soon to be adopted in Brazil which clarify the legal position of
intermediaries, and welcoming provisions which limit their liability (as in
the case of “safe harbour” provisions in the US and E-Commerce Directive
guarantees in the EU), the Rapporteur admonishes attempts to pressure third
parties into complying with special interests, expressing “alarm” at
proposals to disconnect users based on accusations of violations of
intellectual property or other rights. These include efforts to penalize
alleged offenders by suspending their Internet services through laws based
on the idea of “three strikes” or “gradual response” – laws which are
currently in force in France.

The report concludes with recommendations, the majority of which are
directed at governments, calling for intensified efforts to ensure that
international human rights obligations are being met. It also addresses
commercial actors with a warning to be consistent with their
responsibilities, urging them to “continuously review the impact of their
services and technologies on the right to freedom of expression of their

It is not at all clear how the struggle to maintain Net neutrality will
unfold, but the potential for creeping restrictions which protect business
and State interests rather than those of citizens, and the weighty
implications of this trend are becoming increasingly obvious. The
preservation of open and free “virtual public spaces” will ultimately depend
on the extent to which its beneficiaries are prepared to involve themselves
in a much more vigorous debate about the way that Internet governance will
be shaped.

UN Report

(Contribution by Christiana Mauro – EDRi Observer)