ARTICLE 19 delivered the following statement at the 35th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on the 14th June, as part of the Item 3 General Debate.
One year ago, the UN Human Rights Council reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”
States are falling far short of the commitments contained in HRC res 32/13, documented as a “global crisis” by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, in his last report to the General Assembly.
From impunity for the killings of bloggers to laws criminalising legitimate dissent on social media, basic human rights principles are being disregarded to impose greater controls over the information we see and share online, including through pressure on private sector actors.
The Special Rapporteur’s report to this session addresses an important normative gap in terms of States’ obligations vis-à-vis digital access providers, and the responsibilities of access providers themselves.
We join the Special Rapporteur in condemning States that shutdown the Internet through pressure on companies, in particular during election campaigns and crackdowns on protest – against their commitments in Resolution 32/13.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the Internet is a public good, and that any limitations on the right to freedom of expression online must be provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be both necessary and proportionate.
We share the Special Rapporteur’s concerns that digital access providers are routinely deputised for governments’ unlawful surveillance efforts: vague laws require retention of user data and disclosure, weaken encryption or enable direct access to networks, often on the basis of spurious or sweeping national security justifications, and without judicial authorisation or oversight. The failure of States to protect net neutrality, prioritising profit over equitable access, is a particular threat to the rights of economically disadvantaged groups.
We call on digital access providers to take on board the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations and resist government censorship and surveillance efforts. Incorporating human rights safeguards by design, challenging government requests for information that violate human rights, maximising transparency, and ensuring remedies, are the minimum we expect, in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
We call on the HRC to set clear and detailed human rights standards to respond to these concerns, building upon the foundations of resolution 33/2. Today, ARTICLE 19 will launch at a side event our “getting connected” policy on freedom of expression, telcos and ISPs, which we hope States will find useful in this exercise.
This Council must also place greater priority on addressing violations of freedom of expression online, ensuring accountability. States that fail to meet their HRC commitments on digital rights must be called out, and changes to law and practice demanded. This is essential for the guarantee that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” becomes more than words just written on paper.