Expert panel on freedom of expression is only the beginning

Geneva, 01 March 2012

Geneva: APC welcomes the success of the Human Rights Council expert panel on freedom of expression that took place in Geneva on 29 February as an important step towards promoting and protecting human rights online. Anriette Esterhuysen, APC’s executive director and panellist said, “It was extremely encouraging that states agree that the same rights that apply in the offline world also apply online.”

Following on from the report of Frank La Rue in 2011, the panel was an interactive dialogue and revealed a significant level of interest among member states, with good interventions and questions in general, and more than 50 governments wanting to provide comments.

Civil society groups, who also had the opportunity to speak, emphasised that both states and corporations should be held accountable for the implementation of human rights. They stressed the role of internet intermediaries in protecting freedom of expression.

As the cases of Egypt and others show, private companies have often been complicit in illegal censorship, or network shutdowns, and must be held accountable. Likewise, intermediaries should not be arbitrarily called upon to restrict content. Instead, such restrictions must be enacted through domestic law and follow transparent processes which conform to international human rights standards.

Many states expressed concern about the internet being used to distribute harmful content, or to commit crimes. In response several participants emphasised that government-imposed restrictions on freedom of expression may appear to be a cheap and fast solution to preventing crimes such as human trafficking, but ultimately this is not a sustainable approach. Markus Kummer of ISOC noted that “…technological shortcuts should not be used to solve societal problems.”

While these are indeed complex issues, it is clear that human rights are the best mechanism with which to meet these challenges. “Human rights on the internet must become part of the mandate of the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review and other treaty bodies”, said Ms. Esterhuysen in her closing remarks. “It is great to see the Human Rights Council begin to make the connection between human rights and internet rights! Now we have to take this back to the national level”, said Joy Liddicoat who leads APC’s Internet Rights are Human Rights programme. She pointed out that there is a need for capacity building and collaboration in countries among national human rights institutions, civil society, business groups and government.

APC calls on civil society to challenge their respective governments to monitor and evaluate freedom of expression online as part of their human rights obligations. We further challenge governments themselves to commit to firm and concrete actions towards ensuring a free and open internet.
We commend the Swedish government for organising this panel and for their leadership in advancing human rights online. The next step is to promote concrete actions to ensure freedom of expression on the internet and make sure there is follow up to the panel in the work of the Council.

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