UN Internet summit delegates affirm right to freedom of information online

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
Font Size:

Delegates attending the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai pledged on Tuesday to uphold the right to the freedom of information online.

During the second day of proceedings at the 11-day conference, the 193 member states of the International Telecommunications Union voiced support for a proposal introduced by the delegation from Tunisia to protect freedom of expression online, according to a press statement Tuesday by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The ITU, a United Nations agency responsible for regulating long-distance telecommunications and satellite orbits, is the host organization for the conference. (RELATED: Syria restores some Internet access after two-day shutdown)

After a debate on the floor, Paul Conneally, The Head of Communications & Partnership Promotion for the ITU told The Daily Caller, “ultimately it was decided by consensus that there was no need to mix [human rights] issues into a technical treaty when we already fully recognize and reflect in our constitution Art.19. ”

The Tunisian proposal, which was then withdrawn, would have added wording to Article 1 of the ITU constitution — which specifies the purpose of the ITU —  stating that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

The wording followed Article 33 of the ITU’s own constitution, and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The proposal also said that member states “shall ensure that any restrictions placed on the exercise of the Right to Freedom of Expression through the means of telecommunication … should be in accordance with the criteria set forth in Article 43 of the Constitution and of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The much-anticipated and controversial telecommunications summit has garnered substantial criticism for more than a year, particularly from the U.S., because of the implications the conference could have on the future of the Internet.

ITU member states, including Russia, have pushed for more international regulation of the Internet, while the U.S. government and U.S.-based companies like Google have argued that a renegotiation of the international treaty that governs international telecommunications could upend the current governance model of the Internet that has allowed it to flourish.

U.S. policy makers have also expressed concern that the results of the conference might allow totalitarian and authoritarian regimes political cover for internal censorship and suppression of  political dissidents.

The officials have also voiced concerns that companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon might be forced to pay to reach across international borders.

The ITU has pushed back against criticisms of the conference in recent weeks. Conneally, even wrote a rebuttal to a piece by American tech policy analyst Larry Downes in Forbes. Downes’s piece focused on the ITU’s efforts to counter media criticism of conference.

The conference concludes on Dec. 14.

This article has been updated to show that that the Tunisian Proposal was withdrawn from debate after conference attendees voiced support for the right of freedom of expression as outlined under already established UN and ITU doctrine.

Follow Josh on Twitter