Digital platforms are the chief source of information for much of the world today.
The latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur addresses the roles played by private actors engaged in the provision of Internet and telecommunications access.
In his two previous reports, David Kaye focused on freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age, detailing how encryption and anonymity tools provide the security necessary for the exercise of freedom of expression, and on mapping the ways in which the information and communications technology sector impacts freedom of expression.
The latest report, submitted June 6-23, 2017, underlines States’ increasing reliance on the digital access industry to control, restrict or monitor expression online. “When authorities seek to disconnect users from websites, social media, or the Internet entirely, they frequently require the assistance of Internet service providers (ISPs) to interfere with the Internet exchange points (IXPs) that facilitate traffic into or within a country, and to access private communications and other personal data held by telecommunications providers.”
The report points out that today many ISPs are privately owned or operated. “Under protest, in silent acquiescence or as willing participants, they are often essential to State censorship and surveillance. What governments demand of private actors, and how those actors respond, can cripple the exchange of information; limit journalists’ capacity to investigate securely; deter whistle-blowers and human rights defenders.”
But it’s not just governments who are engaged in forms of censorship. “Private actors may also restrict freedom of expression on their own initiative. They may assign priority to Internet content or applications in exchange for payment or other commercial benefits, altering how users engage with information online. Companies that offer filtering services may influence the scope of content accessible to their subscribers.”
The UN Rapporteur makes a number of recommendations based on the Human Rights Council’s condemnation of measures aimed at intentionally preventing or disrupting access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.
Calling upon all States to refrain from such measures, the Rapporteur commented that intentional prevention or disruption of access includes any action that shuts down or renders ineffective access to telecommunications networks, mobile services, social media platforms and so forth. In this respect, clarifying the rules that apply to digital access would advance the right to freedom of opinion and expression online.
Similarly, it is critical to articulate the connections between privacy interference and freedom of expression. “At a minimum, States should ensure that surveillance is authorized by an independent, impartial and competent judicial authority certifying that the request is necessary and proportionate to protect a legitimate aim,” said the report.
Individuals and companies within the digital access sector have long understood that they play an essential role in the expansion of access to information and communications services. As such they should take the principles identified in the present report as tools to advance users’ rights to freedom of expression.
“In this spirit, in addition to high-level policy commitments to human rights, the industry should allocate appropriate resources towards the fulfilment of these commitments, including due diligence, rights-oriented design and engineering choices, stakeholder engagement, strategies to prevent or mitigate human rights risks, transparency and effective remedies,” wrote the Rapporteur.
The full report is available here.