“The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice,” reads the report, issued by the UN last Friday.
Ironically, the report was released on the same day an internet-monitoring firm detected that two-thirds of the internet access had abruptly been knocked out in Syria — a country currently experiencing political unrest and known for its human rights abuse.
Following the massive role social media networks played in the Arab Spring uprising, often referred to as the “Internet revolution,” and in what is perhaps the clearest proof to date of social media’s undeniable influence in the arena of social and political empowerment, all 47 members of the Human Rights Council—the UN’s main human rights body that monitors human rights violations across all member countries—unanimously backed the notion that freedom of expression online is a basic human right, including notoriously censorship-prone China and Cuba.
[Internet access should be a basic human right says World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee]
Support, but with stipulations
China, famous for its web filtering and censorship, supported the resolution, but with strong reservations. In a speech, Chinese delegate Xia Jingge told the Council, “The free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” simultaneously squelching any hopes that the “Great Firewall of China” might soon fall.
Cuban Ambassador Juan Antonio Quintanilla meanwhile pointed out that regulating Internet usership is a moot point for many countries with little or no web access to begin with, saying that currently “only 30 percent of the world’s population has access to this form of technology.”
Greater universal freedom?
U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe hailed the resolution, saying, “It’s the first UN resolution that confirms that human rights in the Internet realm must be protected with the same commitment as in the real world.”
Tunisian ambassador Moncef Baati agreed, citing the role played by social networking websites in ousting ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
According to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, Internet users worldwide now surpass 2 billion, and Facebook users grew from 150 million to 600 million between 2009 and 2011 alone.
Such platforms are especially powerful in countries lacking independent media.
The Internet has played a pivotal role in recent demonstrations in the Middle East and in North Africa, by mobilizing people calling for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights.
Or a license to abuse?
Some critics of the resolution argue that the HRC is simply a pawn for those who use it to legitimize their own human rights abuses. These detractors also point out that the non-binding nature of the resolution means signatory countries will not have to make any changes to how they regulate Internet access.
Despite claiming to be protecting freedoms, many governments and businesses worldwide ranging from the music to telecommunications industry have been criticized for blatantly attempting to tighten controls and limit expression and information-sharing.
Still, a growing number of non-governmental organizations and mavericks like WikiLeaks and hacktivist group Anonymous are making it clear that the struggle to control the Internet is not a one-sided fight.
Is the resolution a real step toward greater freedom of expression, a purely symbolic yet momentous token, or a veiled green-light to further curb Internet freedom?
Maybe we should Google it.
Will the resolution translate into greater freedom of expression? What’s your take?