UNHRC: Oral statement on freedom of expression in the digital age

Article 19 delivered the following oral statement to the 27th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

Thank you Mr. President,

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the panel discussion on the right to privacy in the digital age, and congratulates the OHCHR on their ground breaking report on this issue.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom expression has emphasised: “privacy and freedom of expression are interlinked and mutually dependent.”

Where privacy online is threatened, trust in the Internet evaporates. Pervasive, untargeted and unchecked surveillance, including the interception, collection or retention of communications or meta-data, is a systemic and structural attack on the Internet, regardless of the nationality or location of the ‘target’. Tampering with critical and intermediate infrastructure, or weakening systems, protocols or standards in the service of interception or decryption, further erodes trust. It deprives all people, including journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, of the liberty to communicate securely, anonymously and in confidence, chilling freedom of expression.

The Zone 9 Bloggers, imprisoned and tortured in Ethiopia this year, face terrorist charges in part on the basis that they encrypted their communications and engaged in digital security training to ensure their privacy.

For all people, particularly those living under repressive regimes, the integrity of communications can mean the difference between incarceration and freedom, life and death, or entering a political discussion or self-censoring. Anonymity online is a crucial enabler of open debate.

The same private companies that enable unlawful surveillance in the west, export software to monitor human rights defenders elsewhere, including in Bahrain and Vietnam. The effects of online surveillance are often felt offline, and are part of a global trend to restrict civic space. Lawful protest movements are monitored by the State and private actors, often in cahoots and avoiding democratic oversight, to sabotage peaceful actions, and undermine freedom of association and assembly. Those who seek to censor dissent also seek broad surveillance powers to monitor, preempt and quash it.

The normative advancements of the OHCHR report on privacy in the digital age are significant, and must be built upon with further study, with input from a broad range of stakeholders, to deepen States understanding of their international obligations and to provide concrete recommendations for the implementation thereof.

We ask the panel if this Council’s creation of a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy would ensure sustained attention to this issue, advance international standards and assist States in their implementation?

Thank you.