Human rights principles and doctrines apply off line and on line: 1st UN Human Rights Council panel discussion on Internet freedom of expression.

PEN International welcomes commitment by UNHRC to digital rights as human rights.

During the 19th Session of UN Human Rights Council, on 29 February, a high-level panel discussion focused on the increasing tension between State regulation and the use of the Internet as a vehicle for human rights activism. Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, speaking as a panellist, said that new standards on human rights were not needed because human rights principles and doctrines applied off line and on line and, whether through oral, written or any other form of expression, the same basic freedom of expression principles would apply.
The panel discussion took as its starting point the 2011 Reports to the UN General Assembly by the Special Rapporteur, which focused on the challenges posed to freedom of expression and human rights in the digital context.
The reports underline an international recognition that restrictions of Internet freedom of expression impact on other freedoms that are crucial to human rights, and calls for international standards to guarantee Freedom of Expression online.
The recommendations of the Special Rapporteur emphasise “the need for as little restriction as possible of the flow of information via the Internet, except in a few, exceptional, and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law”, and point to the danger of criminalising legitimate online expression by applying existing criminal laws, such as libel legislation, to online expression.
The panellists expressed grave concerns regarding the use of technologies by repressive regimes and private enterprises to affect the freedom of the internet. They stressed the importance of safeguarding of anonymity both to protect individual privacy and to prevent the targeting of activists and bloggers.
Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the internet has “transformed human rights movements as States could no longer exercise control by claiming monopoly over information.” She further noted that “freedom of expression on the internet required access to the internet in the first place and that its benefits could not be fully reaped as long as large parts of the world’s population lacked reliable and fast internet connections.”

PEN International strongly encourages the Human Rights Council to support the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur in the issue of digital rights.

PEN International is currently developing its own Declaration on Digital Freedom for presentation to our membership at the upcoming Congress in Seoul.

For a report on the panel discussion:

Read the Special Rapporteur’s reports here and here