The United Nations’ Human Rights Council last week voted to protect people’s freedom of expression on the Internet. The council explained the rationale behind the resolution:
The exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance as the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communications technologies.
With this guiding the Council’s decision, they approved five provisos highlighting the importance of the Internet as a tool fostering freedom of expression. The resolution declares that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”, and that all states must “promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries.”
While the measure was approved by a landslide, the National Post writes that “in speeches, both China and Cuba voiced reservations.” China, a country infamous for web filtering and censorship, tiptoed around the issue of free web browsing and the need for censorship. “We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” said Chinese delegation counselor Xia Jingge.
Cuba’s main reservation was not the need to regulate Internet usership, but that many countries have little or no web access to begin with. Cuban ambassador Juan Antonio Quintanilla remarked in a speech, “only 30 percent of the world population currently has access to this form of technology.”
Despite the few critical voices, many deem this a landmark vote for the UN. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, writing in the New York Times, says this decision “demonstrated that maintaining the free flow of information on the Internet is a global call and not something pushed only by a few Western states.” Beyond the resounding multipartisan support, Blidt believes the resolution also emphasizes the importance of the Internet as a tool for economic growth and improving quality of life:
The vote in Geneva on Thursday was a breakthrough of fundamental importance. Beyond affirming that freedom of expression applies also to the Internet, the resolution also recognized the immense value the Internet has for global development and called on all states to facilitate and improve global access to it.
The next question for the United Nations is how to put this resolution into action. It is unclear whether countries will take any additional steps in light of the resolution. As many keep pointing out, this resolution is not enforceable. Thus, countries have no active obligation to improve online freedom of expression within their borders. Moreover, there has been movement in the opposite direction, with some democratic countries taking steps to filter public Internet use–mostly in reaction to public accessing of porn websites and to illegal sites like the Pirate Bay.
If countries do not take action, some see the onus for action in technology companies’ hands, as they are the ones who created “the tools that countries use to monitor and circumscribe their citizens on the Internet.” While others do not foresee tech companies taking responsibility for freedom of speech.
The Pew Institute recently performed a survey asking technology experts the following question: “How far will tech firms go in helping repressive regimes?” The results were split, highlighting the fine line between business imperatives maintaining the status quo, and the potential role consumer backlash could play if companies were exposed for complying with regimes’ requests.
While symbolically momentous, the future of this measure’s implementation, and its concomitant ramifications, remain uncertain.