Frequently Asked Questions - What are internet rights?

APC takes the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a starting point for our work.  From there we include other global and regional treaties which may be relevant when working on specific issues.

While much of our work focuses on freedom of expression and association, all rights are interconnected and none are more important than others. All human rights depend on each other to be fully realised.

Freedom of opinion and expression

Everyone has the right to free speech online, whether through blogs, chat, e-mail or mobile phones. Individuals must be able to express opinions and ideas, and share information freely when using the internet, without threat of harassment or censorship.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression in an internet context is described well by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, in his annual report released June 2011, including how limitations to freedom of opinion and expression may apply online:

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights.

The vast potential and benefits of the Internet are rooted in its unique characteristics, such as its speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. At the same time, these distinctive features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in “real time” and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur also emphasizes that the existing international human rights standards, in particular article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, remain pertinent in determining the types of restrictions that are in breach of States’ obligations to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

As set out in article 19, paragraph 3, of the Covenant, there are certain exceptional types of expression which may be legitimately restricted under international human rights law, essentially to safeguard the rights of others. This issue has been examined in the previous annual report of the Special Rapporteur. However, the Special Rapporteur deems it appropriate to reiterate that any limitation to the right to freedom of expression must pass the following three-part, cumulative test:

a. It must be provided by law, which is clear and accessible to everyone (principles of predictability and transparency); and
b. It must pursue one of the purposes set out in article 19, paragraph 3, of the Covenant, namely (i) to protect the rights or reputations of others, or (ii) to protect national security or of public order, or of public health or morals (principle of legitimacy); and
c. It must be proven as necessary and the least restrictive means required to
achieve the purported aim (principles of necessity and proportionality).

Moreover, any legislation restricting the right to freedom of expression must be applied by a body which is independent of any political, commercial, or other unwarranted influences in a manner that is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, and with adequate safeguards against abuse, including the possibility of challenge and remedy against its abusive application.

As such, legitimate types of information which may be restricted include child pornography (to protect the rights of children), hate speech (to protect the rights of affected communities), defamation (to protect the rights and reputation of others against unwarranted attacks), direct and public incitement to commit genocide (to protect the rights of others), and advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (to protect the rights of others, such as the right to life).

However, in many instances, States restrict, control, manipulate and censor content disseminated via the Internet without any legal basis, or on the basis of broad and ambiguous laws, without justifying the purpose of such actions; and/or in a manner that is clearly unnecessary and/or disproportionate to achieving the intended aim, as explored in the following sections. Such actions are clearly incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law, and often create a broader “chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur emphasizes that due to the unique characteristics of the Internet, regulations or restrictions which may be deemed legitimate and proportionate for traditional media are often not so with regard to the Internet. For example, in cases of defamation of individuals’ reputation, given the ability of the individual concerned to exercise his/her right of reply instantly to restore the harm caused, the types of sanctions that are applied to offline defamation may be unnecessary or disproportionate. Similarly, while the protection of children from inappropriate content may constitute a legitimate aim, the availability of software filters that parents and school authorities can use to control access to certain content renders action by the Government such as blocking less necessary, and difficult to justify. Furthermore, unlike the broadcasting sector, for which registration or licensing has been necessary to allow States to distribute limited frequencies, such requirements cannot be justified in the case of the Internet, as it can accommodate an unlimited number of points of entry and an essentially unlimited number of users.”

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, A/HRC/17/27,

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In practice, this means having affordable access to social networking sites, forums or chatrooms, undue censorship or blocking of these spaces is a violation of our human rights.

The right to freedom of association is the right for individuals to gather with any other individual or group to promote, pursue or defend a common interest. Freedom of peaceful assembly generally refers to the right to participate in political gatherings and demonstrations, while freedom of association generally refers to the right to be part of an organisation or political party. This also serves as an important protection for unions and other labour organisations.

While the internet has enabled human rights defenders to gather easier, share knowledge more efficiently and report news faster, it has also exposed these same groups to surveillance by authoritarian states. Human rights defenders on the internet require strong protections for the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

However, recent studies have shown that authoritarian states are less concerned with restricting unwanted association, but prefer instead to harass individual human rights defenders. This is typically done through the police or intelligence agencies, and is made possible by monitoring the online activities of human rights organisations.

Closely related to ensuring the right to freedom of association is anonymity and circumvention tools. This is especially important for suppressed groups in authoritarian societies.


We each have the right to live private lives, and this privacy is integral to our well-being and security. Neither states nor private entities should intrude on this right, whether through warrant-less surveillance or requiring undue personal information for the use of services. Protection of our privacy also includes the right to use anonymity and encryption software.

As governments all over the world have begun to monitor the online activities of their citizens, the right to privacy has become increasingly important. The ease with which governments can now watch large numbers of people with relatively few resources means that the privacy, and safety, of human rights defenders is at risk.

Privacy and data protection issues are often complex, and it can be difficult to find a common standard. We refer to Privacy International and their work on privacy for further reading, particularly their research on Privacy as a political right.

Privacy rights are closely related to the ability to remain anonymous on the internet. The TOR project offers a popular anonymity service and describes several important privacy issues.

The right to development

The right to development affirms that we are all entitled to pursue the realisation of a reasonable standard of living. This includes group rights for self-determination.

Declaration on the Right to Development article 1:

The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self- determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

The rights of human rights defenders

Human rights defenders are at higher risk due to the nature of their work. As such, states are obligated not to interfere with their work or their ability to coordinate internationally.