Freedom of expression and privacy are mutually reinforcing rights – all the more so in the digital age. Both are essential foundations for open and democratic societies, and among the basic conditions for its progress, and for each individual’s self-fulfilment. For democracy, accountability and good governance to thrive, freedom of expression and opinion must be respected and protected. The same is true of the right to privacy, which also acts as a powerful bulwark against state and corporate power in the modern age.
While freedom of expression is fundamental to diverse cultural expression, creativity and innovation as well as the development of one’s personality through self-expression, the right to privacy is essential to ensuring individuals’ autonomy, facilitating the development of their sense of self and enabling them to forge relationships with others.
Privacy is also a pre-requisite to the meaningful exercise of freedom of expression, particularly online. Without privacy, individuals lack the space to think and speak without intrusion and to develop their own voice. Without freedom of expression, individuals would be unable to develop their sense of self. At the heart of the protection of these rights lies the respect for, and protection of, human dignity and individuals’ ability to live freely and engage with one another.
At the same time, one person’s right to freedom of expression may impinge on someone else’s right to privacy and vice versa. This tension is exacerbated by digital technologies. Whilst they have been central to the facilitation of the exercise of freedom of expression and the sharing of information, digital technologies have also greatly increased the opportunity for violations of the right to privacy on a scale not previously imaginable. In particular, digital technologies present serious challenges to the enforcement of the right to privacy and related rights because personal information can be collected and made available across borders on an unprecedented scale and at minimal cost for both companies and states. At the same time, the application of data protection laws and other measures to protect the right to privacy can have a disproportionate impact on the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.
These Principles were developed in order to provide a systematic analytical framework for assessing the ways in which the rights to freedom of expression and privacy are mutually reinforcing, and for determining the permissible limits which can be placed on these rights where they are in conflict, both on and offline. In particular, the Principles seek to ensure that both of these fundamental rights are effectively respected and protected in the digital age. As we demonstrate in these Principles, international law provides a framework to resolve tensions and maximise the enjoyment of both rights. The Principles we set out here offer a progressive interpretation of international law and best practice in individual states, as reflected, inter alia, in national laws and the judgments of national courts. They should be interpreted in the most favourable way for human rights.
These Principles should neither be taken as foreclosing nor as approving restrictions designed to protect other interests – including the protection of reputation by defamation laws – which deserve separate treatment and are addressed in their entirety in a separate set of principles.
It is our intention and hope that these Principles will be used by individuals, activists, campaigners, legal practitioners, intermediaries, judges, elected representatives, parliamentarians, and public officials around the world as they seek to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.