Freedom of Expression Unfiltered: New policy on blocking, filtering and free speech

Freedom of Expression Unfiltered: New policy on blocking, filtering and free speech - Digital

Today, at the Internet Governance Forum, ARTICLE 19 has launched a new policy addressing the issues raised by the blocking and filtering of content on websites at network level. The policy reviews whether blocking and filtering can ever be compatible with international human rights standards. 

While ARTICLE 19 rejects the use of filters and blocking measures as a matter of principle, the new policy outlines detailed recommendations as to the compatibility of such measures with international human rights standards, which courts or independent adjudicatory bodies should take into consideration when reviewing blocking requests.

The Internet was designed to enable the free flow of information; however, technical measures restricting access to content are now worryingly commonplace around the globe.  Blocking and filtering are often presented as a remedy to various social ills, from sex abuse images, intellectual property infringement, privacy violations, defamation, illegal gambling, and hate speech. Increasingly, as announced this week by Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft, content restrictions are being used as a way to tackle global terrorist threats, as terrorist organisations become more adept at spreading their message online.

However, ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned that these measures violate the fundamental right of every person to seek and exchange information and ideas. Not only that, but they are notoriously ineffective as a means of tackling criminality online, and the risk of over-blocking is high. Decisions on content blocking and filtering also typically lack transparency and are rarely ordered by a court. This means decisions on what content and information Internet users can access lack accountability. More often than not, they are adopted by either administrative authorities or through so-called ‘voluntary’ cooperation with service providers.

As a result, many governments are now in breach of their obligations under international human rights law due to their use of blocking and filtering technologies. Even more worryingly, vast swathes of information are disappearing from the Internet without users being informed or even noticing.

Blocking and filtering also contribute to the fragmentation of the Internet by reinstating borders, through the reliance on domestic legal determinations of what is ‘acceptable content’, contrary to the Internet’s architecture and design.

Although ARTICLE 19 rejects the use of blocking and filtering as a matter of principle, the new policy explains that blocking can only ever be compatible with international standards on freedom of expression under very specific circumstances.

Key recommendations:

  1. Blanket filtering must be prohibited by law;
  2. Filtering should be user-controlled and transparent;
  3. Any requirement to block content must be provided by law;
  4. Blocking should only be ordered by an independent and impartial court or adjudicatory body;
  5. Blocking orders must be strictly proportionate to the aim pursued.

Read our policy brief in full.

Note for Editors:

For more information, contact:

ARTICLE 19 Press team: E: [email protected] T: +44 (0) 20 3290 9308