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UN Report Urges Governments to Ensure Freedom of Expression Online

Freedom of Expression Online

Freedom of Expression Online

A new report by a UN human rights expert warns that governments and companies risk undermining free speech on the internet, and urges both public officials and private authorities to address problems such as online hate speech and disinformation.

“Governments have a responsibility to ensure compliance with national and international law, but they must act now to ensure that the ability of internet platforms to provide space for freedom of expression is not undermined,” said David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“Unfortunately, governments are moving in the wrong direction and often pose direct threats to online freedom of expression,” he said.

“The worst threats include the criminalizing of online criticism of government, religion or other public institutions. Other rules make companies responsible, at the risk of steep financial penalties, to assess what is illegal online, without the kind of public accountability that such decisions require,” said Mr. Kaye.

“Governments should move away from such ‘viewpoint regulation’ and focus their regulatory efforts, if any, on company incentives to disclose information about the enforcement of their rules.”

Mr. Kaye suggests instead that governments should reinforce the role of public authorities, especially the courts, in determining the lawfulness of content, and that States should disclose much more than they do currently about their own demands for companies to remove content.

The report released Tuesday also provides an unprecedented examination of how internet companies regulate online content, and calls for company standards rooted in human rights law, and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Internet companies provide unprecedented space for communication and access to information, but they are also the global speech regulators of our time,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

The report calls for companies to undertake radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of their operations, from rule-making to implementation and for the development of “case law” framing the interpretation of private guidelines. It also calls for public accountability, including third-party monitoring of human rights compliance.

“Reliance on human rights standards would give companies the tools to articulate their positions in ways that respect democratic norms and counter authoritarian demands,” the UN expert added.

The report by the Special Rapporteur is part of a broader initiative to examine challenges to freedom of expression in the digital age, and is the culmination of a year-long series of consultations, visits to major internet companies and a wide range of State and civil society input.

Mr. David Kaye (USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression August 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Photo courtesy: UN Human Rights

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