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UNHRC: “Free Expression Contingent Upon Privacy”

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ARTICLE 19

12 Sep 2014

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During a debate on ‘privacy in the digital age’ at the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council today, ARTICLE 19 has told States that the right to freedom of expression cannot be enjoyed online without adequate safeguards for privacy.

The UN panel discussion on the right to privacy in the digital age is the first time UN Member States have met since the High Commissioner for Human Rights released her damning report slamming governments’ mass surveillance powers.

Delivering the oral statement, Andrew Smith, Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19, told the Human Rights Council: “Where privacy online is threatened, trust in the Internet evaporates. Pervasive, untargeted and unchecked surveillance is a systemic and structural attack on the Internet.” 

ARTICLE 19 explained in its intervention that this is a human rights issue that extends beyond even the broad range of violations connected to NSA and GCHQ surveillance, with wide ramifications for freedom of expression around the world.

The oral statement highlights the recent charges against the “Zone 9” blogger collective in Ethiopia as one example of how surveillance is used to gather information on activists and quash political dissent. It also points to how the same private companies enabling total surveillance in western countries are exporting tech to suppress dissent in totalitarian countries such as Bahrain and Vietnam.

“For all people, particularly those living under repressive regimes, the integrity of their communications can mean the difference between incarceration and freedom, life and death, or entering a political discussion or self-censoring”, ARTICLE 19 said in the oral submission. 

In a separate written submission to the Human Rights Council, ARTICLE 19 joined Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others in urging further efforts from the United Nations to deepen the conceptual framework for the right to privacy in the digital age.

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York this autumn, States will consider adopting a resolution outlining their understanding of what protecting the right to privacy in accordance with international human rights standards entails. This is a critical opportunity to build upon the conclusions of the High Commissioner’s report. 

While the General Assembly discussion on the right to privacy will be heated, ARTICLE 19 has urged States not to allow differences in opinion to jeopardise the creation of a new UN independent expert on the right to privacy that would give sustained attention to this issue. ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for States to create this new mandate next time the Human Rights Council meets in Geneva in March 2014.