UN Human Rights Council votes to protect Internet freedom of expression

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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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.

U.S. companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter were silent about the matter. Twitter recently reported that the U.S. government had requested user information 679 times in 2011, and that the company complied with 75 percent of those requests. Google complied with 93 percent of 6,321 requests for user information made by U.S. authorities.

A recent survey of 1,000 technology experts by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that experts were “divided about the role Western technology companies will play in helping monitor and thwart dissident activity in the future.”

“Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens,” Danah Boyd, a senior researcher with Microsoft Research.

Janna Anderson — an associate professor at Elon University and the survey’s author — told The Daily Caller that survey respondents seemed “to see the tension between security and trust, free speech and privacy rights, and the corporate drive for profits as being the primary points of discussion when asked about corporate social responsibility.”

About half of the survey respondents agreed that by 2020, technology firms will be expected “to abide by a set of norms” focused on corporate responsibility in protecting human rights online.

“In the absence of a collective initiative, it seems unlikely there will be any upside for any individual company that might want to resist the demands of governments — including the U.S. government — when it comes to squelching connection and speech,” said Susan Crawford, a Harvard University professor and former technology adviser to President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Indeed, all companies want scale and certainty, and those things come to cooperative entities,” Crawford added. “I still have hope that multi-stakeholder efforts, particularly at places like the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] OECD, will bear fruit. But it takes an awful lot of work and time for that fruit to grow.”

Survey respondent Jeff Eisenach — managing director and principal of Navigant Economics, and formerly a senior policy expert with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission — expressed a different view point, saying, “Firms will continue to resolve these issues on a case-by-case basis, usually out of sight of First Amendment advocates.”

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