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APC welcomes the adoption by the Human Rights Council (HRC) of resolution A/HRC/32/L.20 reaffirming the importance of promoting and protecting human rights on the internet. The resolution, which was adopted by consensus, addresses some of the most pressing challenges to human rights online today.

Since its landmark resolution in 2012 and follow-up resolution in 2014, the HRC has gone from recognising at a fundamental level the applicability of human rights in the online environment, to addressing critical issues like bridging the gender digital divide, attacks on people for exercising their rights online, ending intentional disruptions to internet access, and improving access to the internet and information and communications technologies (ICTs) for persons with disabilities. 

The amendments introduced by China and the Russian Federation would have diluted the text and undermined the respect for human rights online which has been established in the HRC over the last few years. That these amendments were rejected and the resolution passed with more states co-sponsoring than in previous years signals unyeilding international consensus around the need to protect and promote human rights online.

Significantly, the resolution underscores the importance of access to the internet when it comes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the words of APC Communications and Information Policy Manager Valeria Betancourt: “a rights-based approach to expanding access to the internet is critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In order for the internet to contribute to the full exercise of human rights and achieve sustainable development, it is necessary not only to get the remaining 60% of the world’s population online, but to ensure that public policies on the expansion of access to the internet are rooted in human rights . This means also addressing the economic, social and cultural barriers to access, both between and within countries, and for access to be universal, non-discriminatory and affordable.”

Bridging the gender digital divide

APC commends the HRC for calling specific attention to the need to bridge the gender digital divide, to provide access and empower women through technology, and for calling for a report from the High Commissioner on Human Rights to address this issue. The gender digital divide was identified as a critical challenge in the outcome document of the World Summit on Information Society ten year review (WSIS+10), so it is excellent to see the United Nations’ (UN) primary human rights body seeking ways to address this.

We encourage the High Commissioner to take a holistic approach in identifying and addressing barriers to women’s human rights and their empowerment through the internet, and look beyond solutions aimed purely at connectivity. “Women’s inclusion in policy development and decision-making processes and eliminating other barriers, like technology-related violence against women are all critical for women’s empowerment and gender equality”, APC’s Women’s Rights Programme project coordinator Jan Moolman says.

Reclaiming the internet for the exercise of human rights. Impunity must not prevail

Attacks on human rights defenders, bloggers, activists, and ordinary people for expressing their views online are disturbingly common. We commend the HRC for condemning torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, expulsion, intimidation and harassment, as well as gender based violence against individuals for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the internet. These attacks must end and impunity must not prevail.

Governments are ordering disruptions of communications networks and applications at alarming rates. Network shutdowns and virtual curfews are becoming the new normal, a blunt tool to address anything from security threats and peaceful protests to cheating on school exams. This poses a threat not only to freedom of expression and assembly and association, but endangers public safety, has a severe economic cost, and infringes on economic, social and cultural rights. We therefore applaud the HRC for recognising for the first time that measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online are in violation of international human rights law. We urge all states to cease such measures. 

The internet can only be a medium for the exercise of human rights if all people are able to use it meaningfully. Too often those at the margins of society are excluded from the benefits of technology. Even when connectivity is available, a number of factors prevent meaningful use of the internet, including affordability, availability of relevant content and skills. As mentioned above, we are pleased that the resolution contains strong language on improving access to ICTs and the internet for persons with disabilities, including in the design, development, production and distribution of ICTs, including assistive and adaptive technologies.

Moving forward

APC calls on all states to implement the important commitments contained in this resolution. The broad co-sponsorship of the resolution underscores that the internet is crucial for human rights in all regions. We encourage the HRC to continue examining and addressing the impact of the internet on human rights in a systematic manner. In particular the HRC should engage with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression project examining the role of the ICT sector, and consider the impact of the internet on human rights in a more systematic manner, including on economic, social, and cultural rights.