In what’s being described as a “landmark” decision, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this week officially declared free expression on the Internet a basic human right. The non-biding resolution puts pressure on nation states around the world to protect free speech online, but does not require them to do so.
“This outcome is momentous for the Human Rights Council,” said Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in an interview with reporters. “It’s the first ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world.”
The resolution was presented by a global coalition, including Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States, plus dozens of other co-sponsors. Both China and Cuba, two states known for their repressive policies, expressed certain reservations, but ultimately backed the resolution.
“We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” said Xia Jingge, China’s envoy to the U.N., to the UNHRC assembly. “As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, violence, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of society and the public.”
As The New York Times’ Somini Sengupta points out, the enforcement of this ideal will fall not just on the heads of governments but on the companies that create and operate the technological infrastructure that makes up the global Internet.
“The ball, in some ways, is now in the court of the technology companies that produce the tools that countries use to monitor and circumscribe their citizens on the Internet,” writes Sengupta. “China’s firewall uses technology from Cisco, for instance. American law-enforcement agencies routinely seek information from Internet companies…”
This puts Internet companies in a compromising position. In order for them to operate in certain countries — especially if they have offices and employees physically in a country — then they are required to abide by the laws imposed by those countries, even if it means engaging in censorship and other distasteful practices. Google and Twitter have been the most open about this process, with each publishing detailed “transparency reports” about the requests they receive from governments to remove content or obtain private user data.
Read the full resolution text below: