A great moment for the free flow of information

International organizations are stepping up in defense of protecting and advancing the free flow of information online.

A high-level United Nations representative has issued a clarion call promoting freedom of expression. In a report released earlier this month in Geneva, the UN’s Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue argued that restricting the flow of information via Internet blackouts violates human rights.

For the developing world, the UN’s Special Rapporteur sees access to the Internet as a crucial tool for fighting back inequality and spurring economic growth. The Special Rapporteur argues that governments should strive "to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all." At the same time, he urges resistance to attempts by powerful governments to block Internet access.

In the developed world, the UN report opposes “three strikes” Internet laws, which are designed by governments to discourage Internet file-sharers. For instance, France and the United Kingdom are trying to employ new laws that would allow authorities to get users’ Internet unplugged permanently for illegal downloads.

We look forward to approval of the report by the United Nations General Assembly when it meets in September.

The report is already generating positive momentum in Europe and elsewhere. A group of UK Parliamentarians have put forward a motion demanding that the government review its website blocking plans.

The UN Special Rapporteur also has joined with representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to issue a ringing joint declaration in defense of free expression on the Internet. The declaration sets out several important principles, including:
  • Freedom of expression applies to the Internet, as it does to all means of communication. Any restrictions are acceptable only in the rarest of occasions when prescribed by law and if in compliance with international standards.
  • Internet service providers that provide the platform for free expression cannot be held liable for illegal or harmful content generated by third parties.
  • Mandatory blocking of websites or IP addresses represents an extreme measure, analogous to the prohibition of a newspaper, radio, or television station.
  • The “single publication rule” should be respected. It holds that damages can be recovered only once for any single piece of content.
Mr. La Rue toured Europe recently to build support for his report. When he visited The Hague, the Dutch government offered strong support and announced plans to host a global Ministerial Conference on online Freedom of Expression in the Netherlands in the fall. So watch this space for updates on the battle to keep the Internet open for a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions.