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Opening Remarks by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, Panel Discussion on the Right to Freedom of Expression on the Internet

Geneva, 29 February 2012

Madame President of the Human Rights Council,
Distinguished panellists,
Excellencies and honourable participants,

I am delighted to open this panel discussion on freedom of expression on the Internet and welcome our panellists and the moderator. I congratulate Sweden, represented by Foreign Minister Bildt on this panel, and the other co-sponsors for bringing this important discussion into the Council.

The Internet has become an indispensible tool for people to receive information, beyond that prepared and disseminated by traditional mass media. At the same time, the Internet allows all users to become providers of information by offering a global and public online space where people can share their views and opinions, exchange information and ideas and make their voices and demands known.

As a result of these unique characteristics, the Internet has transformed human rights movements. States can no longer exercise control based on the notion of monopoly over information. We have also witnessed how courageous individuals strategically used the Internet to mobilise and support others in demanding their human rights.  Human rights defenders quickly claimed the audio-visual and crowdsourcing capacities that the Internet offers to document human rights violations and share them in real-time with a global audience.

Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a backlash effect and intensified attempts to unduly restrict access to online content or the Internet as such.

I am concerned that websites continue to be blocked in many countries, either permanently or, through the use of “just-in-time” blocking, during specific periods of political significance.  Some are even contemplating to delink from the World Wide Web altogether and replace it with a presumably more tightly controlled online space.

Bloggers and human rights defenders who legitimately exercise their right to freedom of expression continue to be arbitrarily arrested, tortured and unjustly sentenced to imprisonment on the pretext of protecting national security or countering terrorism.  Some have had their lives threatened and been the subject of death sentences.

I recognize the Internet can be employed not only for legitimate causes but criminal activities and the truth of the contents is not always verifiable.  

However, while there is a need to combat criminal activities that abuse the Internet as a platform and ensure that all users can safely surf the Internet, there is also a real concern that methods to identify and track down criminals may be used to crack down on human rights defenders, suppress dissenting voices and withhold “inconvenient” information.   I also note that there are well-intended legislative initiatives, including those intended to protect intellectual property rights, which impose onerous obligations and related liability on intermediaries to regulate online content and could thereby stifle freedom of information.

Private entities can be involved in undermining the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet.   Companies that provide essential platforms on the Internet may illegally disclose personal information to States without court order, undertake censorship on behalf of States, or secretively collect personal data and use it for commercial purposes without the user’s knowledge or consent.

We are dealing with very complex issues.   However, these are not merely technical in nature, but have profound policy implications. Therefore, I would like to stress the importance of undertaking a human rights impact assessment whenever Internet policies are being deliberated. Due regard for the users’ rights to access and disseminate information and their rights to privacy and security must guide such deliberations. It is important that any laws or measures that restrict access to online content are appropriate and necessary to effectively address genuine concerns. Sufficient safeguards must be put in place to ensure that no restriction on accessing online content is arbitrary or excessive.

In concluding my opening remarks, I would like to note that freedom of expression on the Internet requires access to the Internet in the first place.   The benefits of the Internet cannot be fully reaped as long as a large part of the world’s population lacks reliable and sufficiently fast Internet connections.

Continuous efforts have to be made at all levels to devise and implement effective policies to bridge the digital divide and attain universal Internet access for all.

I am sure that the panellists and stakeholders who are here with us today will provide us with a rich array of experience, observations and recommendations on ways and means to ensure the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet at all levels.

Thank you