Universal Periodic Review: Challenge UK to end arbitrary use of defamation laws
23 May 2012
On 24 May, the United Kingdom’s human rights record is going to be reviewed at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. ARTICLE 19 has called upon the member states of the UN to urge the UK to commit to reform a number of restrictive laws including the:
- Digital Economy Act
- Official Secrets Act
- Defamation Act
The submission also emphasised the need to enhance access to government-held information as while the UK is now co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), it is considering radical changes to the Freedom of Information Act which will seriously limit access.
Digital Economy Act
ARTICLE 19 has expressed strong concerns about the Digital Economy Act which impinges upon people’s right to access the internet and obtain information. The Act safeguards the rights of copyright holders by:
- forcing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ban any subscribers seen as infringing copyright material from accessing the internet without a court order
- blocking websites that are alleged to infringe on copyright
- allowing little opportunity for appeals to be made and lacking any form of legal rigour.
Such safeguards to copyright have curtailed the right to free expression, an issue that the Universal Periodic Review Working Group must acknowledge during this review.
Communications Data Bill
In the Queen’s Speech, the government announced the proposed Communications Data Bill. This Bill would require ISPs and mobile phone operators to save and store details of communications made by all subscribers regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. If this Bill comes into effect, the UK will be copying measures undertaken by authoritarian governments that violate their citizens’ rights to privacy and free expression.
ARTICLE 19 welcomes the announcement in the Queen’s speech on the Defamation Bill. The UK Government must now go forward with this Bill and further improve it relating to internet communications and public interest in order to fully protect the right to freedom of expression.
The UN must call upon the UK government to prevent any restriction to freedom of expression on the internet and in other spaces. ARTICLE 19 has pointed to the following examples:
- In 2011, the UK Government forced Twitter to reveal information about the individuals who had criticised public officials at South Tyneside Council
- After the London riots of 2011, the UK Prime Minister suggested police officials should be allowed to block social networking websites, an action which violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
- The UK authorities have insisted that ISPs remove material from the internet under the Terrorism Act 2006, without the necessary legal authority to do so
- Police officials are suspected of being involved in blocking websites that monitor police brutality and violence. The UK Government must address this in order to ensure that human rights are protected
- The Court has issued injunctions preventing news media from disclosing information. Such so-called ‘super-injunctions’ violate Article 19 of the ICCPR
- The Government is currently holding a consultation on increasing restrictions allowed in the Freedom of Information Act
- The Data Protection Act gives little recourse to individuals who are denied their right to obtain information from private bodies.
ARTICLE 19’s recommendations to UN member states are to call on the UK to:
- Repeal those provisions of the Digital Economy Act which allow internet users to be banned and websites to be blocked
- Ensure that all limits on internet access and all blocking, filtering and removing of internet content are authorised by a court based on international standards on freedom of expression exemptions
- Reform the Official Secrets Act to apply only to cases involving substantial harm to national security
- Further reform the Official Secrets Act to include a public interest defence
- Reform libel law so that libel tourism and excessive costs are limited and public interest defences increased
- Repeal the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations and reject the Communications Data Bill
- Reject amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that would allow bodies to impose fees for requests and limit access to Cabinet documents without evaluating the public interest
- Reform the Data Protection Act to ensure that individuals have access to personal information held by public and private bodies
- Adopt new rules banning so-called ‘super-injunctions’, which limit all discussions of pending cases.
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