Freedom of expression online: more needs to be done

Geneva, 19 June 2018 (PEC) The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) welcomes the publication of the report of the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye A/HRC/38/35 and its annex A/HRC/38/35/add 1.

“For the first time we have a UN report that gives an overview of public and private regulation of user-generated online content. We strongly recommend that the report be thoroughly read”, said PEC Secretary-General Blaise Lempen, on the occasion of the 38th session of the Human Rights Council.

Cyber warfare has begun. Technology evolves very quickly and gives more and more means to disseminate information and at the same time to control and censor the contents on social media.

The PEC is concerned by the use of social media to disseminate hate, violence, extremism and discrimination, like it was recently witnessed in Myanmar against the Rohingyas with dramatic human consequences. We have seen also the role played by the Internet in spreading terrorist propaganda, recruting new members and foreign fighters in the context of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts.

Disinformation campaigns via websites and social media have also been employed to discredit or silence dissenting voices and to demonize opposition. Propaganda often targets activists and human rights defenders who risk their lives to document and report on human rights abuses on the ground, labeled as “fake news.”

The danger is real to remove content on the basis of non-transparent, unclear definitions, allegations, and to censor Internet for an ever-broadening range of speech-related offences.

The PEC is also concerned by the fact that excessive reliance on algorithms has unduly restricted depictions of violence in conflict zones, curtailing efforts to document evidence of war crimes, and in a non-legitimate manner targeting content provided by human rights defenders and journalists.

How to deal with this new secret war in cyberspace ? It’s only the beginning. More needs to be done to protect freedom of expression online. The report of the Special Rapporteur has identified a range of steps.

The PEC agrees with recommendations of the Special Rapporteur, among them that States should only seek to restrict content pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy.

Companies should recognize that the authoritative global standard for ensuring freedom of expression on their platforms is human rights law, not the varying laws of States or their own private interests. More transparency requires greater engagement with relevant sectors of civil society and avoiding secretive arrangements with States on content standards and implementation, stressed the Special Rapporteur in his report.

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