APC sparks debate at UN over internet rights

Publisher: APCNews     Ottawa, 27 June 2011

In the wake of APC’s side event on freedom of expression at the Human Rights Council’s 17th session, the UN has, for the first time, taken a major step towards defining the relationship between the internet and human rights. The event had more than 50 attendees and culminated in over 40 countries signing on to a joint statement commending the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s report, which had been featured at the event.

We interviewed Joy Liddicoat, head of APC’s Connect your rights! campaign to get a better understanding of what this means for internet rights.

Congratulations, Joy, on this important success. It looks like the campaign is off to a good start.

So, what does this new step mean for policy makers and advocates?

While this development is historic, it is important not to overstate its significance. The United Nations has not declared access to the internet to be a human right as has been stated in many media reports.

What happened was that, for the first time, the United Nations received and debated a report specifically focussed on the internet and the right to freedom of expression and opinion. The report looked at the issue of access to the internet and its author, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, concluded that States have obligations under existing international human rights law to take steps to ensure access to the internet.

This is really important because a key issue in the public debate is whether we need new human rights related to the internet or whether our existing rights already apply. This debate has been happening since the 1990s right through the development of the APC Internet Rights Charter.

There does not yet seem to be general agreement among governments that the human rights we already have apply to our use of the internet. So this is a crucial first step and that is why the joint statement lead by governments was so significant. To have 40 countries agree on such a basic statement was beyond all expectations.

Did you find delegates were receptive to the idea that “internet rights are human rights”?

There was a lot of curiosity and questions: “Internet rights? Are they new? What do you mean? How are these different from human rights?” We’ll be answering all these questions on the Connect Your Rights website in the next months.

Having our material available in three languages made our key messages so much more accessible and to a much wider audience.

So what’s next?

There is so much more work to be done! There is a need to build on the good work done so far, and to increase international consensus that, at the very least, the human rights we already have apply to our online activities.

We need to broaden understanding of how all human rights are relevant online including economic, cultural and social rights as well as sexual and reproductive rights. There is a need to hold governments to account for human rights violations. The Connect Your Rights! campaign will be there making sure that governments are listening.

Building a culture of respect for human rights online will require the coordinated efforts of not just civil society, but governments and internet intermediaries as well. We encourage everyone who cares about this issue to write your country’s delegation and commend them for signing on to the joint statement.

If you are interested in joining the Connect Your Rights! Internet Rights are Human Rights campaign, go to APC.org, and learn how you can become part of the movement.