The United Nations Human Rights Council recognized and approved an international move to protect the free flow of information online Thursday.
The council voted to approve a resolution — presented by Sweden, and co-sponsored by 85 countries, including the U.S. — regarding the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.”
While the resolution contains no enforcement provisions, it expresses a key viewpoint of a number of countries in the international community — that the free flow of information on the Internet must be protected. The current debate — in both private and political circles — is over what information should be protected, how it is protected and who should protect it.
Among the countries missing from the list were Israel, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea. China’s envoy backed the motion, but said that the free flow of information on the Internet is “mutually dependent” with the “safe flow of information.”
“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,” Chinese envoy Xia Jingge told the assembly.
China, along with Russia and several smaller authoritarian regimes, introduced a measure in September 2011 to the International Telecommunication Union focused on ensuring cybersecurity on the international level. U.S. lawmakers and policy makers expressed deep concern that the interest in establishing international regulation of the Internet was merely political cover to allow for the continued suppression of political dissidents.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the resolution sends a message that “there can be no division or double standard regarding human rights online,” calling it “a welcome addition in the fight for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online.”
The resolution is the latest Internet freedom initiative by the U.N., following up on the reports and recommendations of U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression and Opinion Frank La Rue. La Rue famously announced that Internet access should be a human right — an idea that has since received high-level criticism, including from the “Father of the Internet,” Vint Cerf.
“The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world,” Hillary Clinton said, referring to actions taken by authoritarian regimes to shut down Internet services during uprisings and protests.
“We are witnessing an alarming surge in the number of cases involving government censorship and persecution of individuals for their actions online — sometimes for just a single tweet or text message,” Clinton said.
Technology companies, including Nokia Siemens and Swedish telecom giant Teliasonera, not wanting to forfeit access to emerging markets, have also cooperated with authoritarian regimes in providing surveillance technology to track and suppress dissidents.
The U.S. government, however, is not blameless. In May it was revealed that the FBI was quietly looking to amend a Federal Communications Commission surveillance regulation to allow the FBI to legally monitor Americans on social networks, through web-based email, and in Voice over IP communications.