Freedom of expression
The High Commissioner and her office advocate for the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, including in the online space. Key topics in this advocacy are the protection of the civic space and the safety of journalists online; various forms of information control, including internet shutdowns and censorship; addressing incitement to violence, discrimination, or hostility; disinformation; and the role of social media platforms in the space of online expression.
Freedom of expression in the digital space also features highly on the agenda of the UNHRC. It has often been underlined that states have a responsibility to ensure adequate protection of freedom of expression online, including when they adopt and implement measures aimed at dealing with issues such as cybersecurity, incitement to violence, and the promotion and distribution of extremist content online. The UNHRC has also been firm in condemning measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or the dissemination of information online, and has called on states to refrain from and cease such measures.
In 2021, at the request of the UNHRC A/HRC/47/22, the High Commissioner prepared a report on internet shutdowns (A/HRC/50/55), which looks at trends in internet shutdowns, analysing their causes, their legal implications, and their impact on a range of human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights. She called on states to refrain from the full range of internet shutdowns and for companies to uphold their responsibilities to respect human rights. She stressed the need for development agencies, and regional and international organisations to bridge their digital connectivity efforts with efforts related to internet shutdowns.
UN Human Rights also weighs in on a range of law-making processes that are relevant to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. For example, it has engaged with the development of the EU Digital Services Act, commented extensively on global trends in regulating social media, and participated in the process of elaborating a Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes.
Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression have been analysing issues relating to free expression in the digital space for more than a decade. Reports in the first half of the 2010s already addressed the importance of universal access to the internet for the enjoyment of human rights, free expression in the context of elections, and the adverse impacts of government surveillance on free expression. In 2018, the Special Rapporteur published a report on online content regulation. It tackles governments’ regulation of user-generated online content, analyses the role of companies, and recommends that states should ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression and that businesses should rely on human rights law when designing their products and services. The same year, he also presented to the UNGA a report addressing freedom of expression issues linked to the use of AI by companies and states. A year later, the Special Rapporteur presented a report to the UNGA on online hate speech that discusses the regulation of hate speech in international human rights law and how it provides a basis for governmental actors considering regulatory options and for companies determining how to respect human rights online.
In 2020, the Special Rapporteur issued Disease Pandemics and the Freedom of Opinion and Expression, a report that specifically tackles issues such as access to the internet, which is highlighted to be ‘a critical element of healthcare policy and practice, public information, and even the right to life’. The report calls for greater international coordination on digital connectivity given the importance of digital access to healthcare information. Other reports addressed the vital importance of encryption and anonymity for the exercise of freedom of opinion and the threats to freedom of expression emanating from widespread digital surveillance.
The Special Rapporteur, while acknowledging the complexities and challenges posed by disinformation in the digital age, noted that responses by states and companies to counter disinformation have been inadequate and detrimental to human rights. In her 2021 report Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression (A/HRC/47/25), she examined the threats posed by disinformation to human rights, democratic institutions, and development processes, and called for multidimensional and multistakeholder responses to disinformation that are well grounded in the international human rights framework and urged companies to review their business models and states to recalibrate their responses to disinformation.
More recently, in 2022, the Special Rapporteur issued Reinforcing Media Freedom and the Safety of Journalists in the Digital Age (A/HRC/50/29), a report in which she calls on states and the international community to strengthen multistakeholder cooperation to protect and promote media freedom and the safety of journalists in the digital age, and ensure independence, pluralism, and viability of the media. She also calls on digital services companies and social media platforms to respect the UNGPs on BHR.
Online hate speech and discrimination have also been addressed by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. For instance, in a report published in 2019, the online manifestation of antisemitism (including antisemitic hate speech) was underscored, and best practices from the Netherlands and Poland were shared. The report highlights that governments ‘have an affirmative responsibility to address online antisemitism, as the digital sphere is now the primary public forum and marketplace for ideas’. In another document published that same year, the Special Rapporteur assesses the impact of online platforms on discrimination and on the perpetuation of hostile and violent acts in the name of religion, as well as how restrictive measures such as blocking and filtering of websites negatively impact the freedom of expression.
The issue of online blasphemy and undue limitations on expressing critical views of religions and beliefs imposed by governments has also been addressed on a number of occasions, including in a report from 2018.