Policy brief

Freedom of expression and ICTs: Overview of international standards

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03 Dec 2013


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The internet and new information communication technologies (ICTs) are now an integral part of everyday life for many people around the world. ICTs are giving more and more people a voice and are improving openness and public debate in the society.

At the same time, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in relation to ICTs are on the increase: there have been many warnings that more and more states are trying to increase their grip on the growing flow of data and how people express themselves online. More and more, it is private actors and international corporations who are the providers and enablers of ICTs and who therefore make the decisions about the extent to which citizens are able to enjoy the right to freedom of expression.

In various discussions about the protection of freedom of expression and ICTs, a question has emerged asking whether the internet needs a separate set of international laws and treaties specifically designed for the new medium or whether legal issues pertaining to the web should be tackled within existing legislation and
international standards.

The former suggestion is based on the assumption that the global and decentralised flow of information on the internet and in cyberspace as a whole cannot be linked to a particular jurisdiction or sovereign state. Furthermore, it is argued that the enforcement of existing laws can barely keep up with the volume of data flow, the increase in
cybercrime and attacks to the internet's infrastructure. The latter suggestion, supported by many international human rights organisations, is based on the presumption that the internet is merely another platform for communication and not a separate virtual world: thus existing legal standards apply. Existing legal rules on particular issues (e.g. copyright, defamation and privacy rights) are likely to need adapting to reflect the
nature and pace of the digital age; however, given the fear that the internet causes some governments around the world, new international standards bear the risk of watering down existing human rights standards and of fragmenting and 'nationalising' the internet.

ARTICLE 19 argues that the right to freedom of expression was not designed to fit any particular medium or technology. Regardless of whether it is exercised online or offline, it is an internationally protected right to which almost all countries of the world have committed themselves. 

This publication provides an overview of the main international standards relevant tothe protection of the right to freedom of expression in relation to ICTs. It identifiesinternational and regional standards for the protection of key areas of concern, inparticular access to the internet and controlling access to online content, contentregulation, the rights of citizen journalists and bloggers, access to information and ICTsand the regulatory framework of the internet.It is intended as a resource for anyone with an interest in promoting the realisation ofthe right to freedom of expression on the internet, such as journalists, public officials,judges, lawyers and civil society campaigners.