The last decade has seen massive, global technological change, creating a multitude of opportunities to strengthen the protection of the right to freedom of expression and information. However, this growth of the digital world, with its huge opportunities for the expansion of free speech, brings with it considerable and constantly evolving challenges, which have profound implications for human rights.
ARTICLE 19 recently attended the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), where among other issues, we discussed intermediary liability and online surveillance - two areas crucial to our ongoing and future work in safeguarding the right to freedom of expression in the rapidly evolving digital world.
Censorship and intermediary liability
Internet intermediaries, such as internet service providers (ISPs), search engines and social media platforms, allow the rapid exchange of ideas and opinions globally. Yet this free flow of information is under threat as intermediaries come under increasing pressure from governments to be responsible for what their users do online.
At the same time, intermediaries can and do ban certain types of content themselves, and not just illegal content. It's not clear how and why they decide what to censor, which is part of the issue, but it is clear that this private censorship fails to respect international human rights standards, and has a negative impact on freedom of expression.
The problem is further compounded by the lack of transparency in the way these restrictions are implemented. For instance, there is no mechanism for users to appeal against decisions by ISPs to censor user-generated content. This effectively means that online content is increasingly being regulated and censored by private companies, which offer limited transparency and accountability.
At ARTICLE 19, we believe that intermediaries should not be tasked with, or indeed allowed, to act as barriers to the free flow of ideas. And they should not be liable for content distributed through their platforms. Instead only independent and impartial judicial bodies should decide what content is unlawful and order its removal in accordance with the rule of law. And from the hosts' perspective, orders issued by independent and impartial bodies provide a much greater degree of legal certainty.
The issue of digital surveillance, one of the most contentious subjects of the last few years, was also high on the agenda at the IGF, and at the most recent session of the Human Right's Council. Indeed in July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a landmark report on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age, which contained strong recommendations for states to bring their surveillance practices in line with international human rights standards. This comes a year after the Snowden revelations revealed the huge extent of transnational and cross-border government surveillance.
The digitalization of information has not only enabled governments to automatically block information, but also to monitor what people look at currently and retrospectively. When privacy online is threatened, trust in the internet evaporates. As we said at this month's session of the HRC, we believe this is a human rights issue that extends beyond even the broad range of violations connected to NSA and GCHQ surveillance, with wide ramifications for freedom of expression around the world. Indeed, the recent charges against the Zone 9 blogger collective in Ethiopia is just one example of how surveillance is used to gather information on activists and quash political dissent.
Too often the threat of national security is given as a reason to allow the intelligence services of one country to snoop on the residents of another without restraint. And as part of our efforts to protect the right to privacy, we have been working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others to look at the legal underpinnings of the International Principles on the application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance to ensure international human rights law is respected in the context of transnational surveillance.
To quote the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, ARTICLE 19 believes that 'privacy and freedom of expression are interlinked and mutually dependent.' Digital media has revolutionised the way we communicate, how we share ideas and opinions, and how we access information. Over the next five years we aim to respond to new developments, promote and protect the 'democratization' of information from censorship, and ensure everyone is empowered by the rights to free expression, access to information, and to privacy.