U.N. expert sees Internet as catalyst for change

An independent United Nations human rights expert has urged governments to ensure that the Internet is made widely available, accessible and affordable to all, and to guarantee the free flow of information online.

“Governments are using increasingly sophisticated technologies and tactics which are often hidden from the public to censor online content and to monitor and identify individuals who disseminate critical or sensitive information,” said Frank La Rue, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

In his annual report to the General Assembly, La Rue states that these actions by governments frequently lead to arbitrary arrests and detention.

“In recent months, we have seen a growing movement of people around the world who are advocating for change – for justice, equality, accountability of the powerful and better respect for human rights,” he noted, “and the Internet has often played a key role in such movements by enabling people to connect and exchange information instantly and by creating a sense of solidarity.”

La Rue noted that the potential of the Internet as a catalyst for change has also generated fear among those who prefer to maintain the status quo. However, in his view, such fear of change cannot justify monitoring, censoring, or blocking access to the Internet.

In his report, La Rue outlines four types of exceptional expression which states are required to prohibit and criminalize under international law. These are child pornography; incitement to commit genocide; incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence; and incitement to terrorism.

He recommends that states refrain from criminalizing all other forms of expression, and also outlines the safeguards which must be in place to prevent censorship of content under the guise of seemingly legitimate goals.

Noting that three-quarters of the world still lack access to the Internet, La Rue also stresses the need for states to renew their efforts to make this medium widely available, accessible and affordable to all.

States must also ensure that everyone, including persons with disabilities, can fully participate in the information society, he added. For example, while 81 per cent of the total United States population has access to the Internet, the figure is only 4 per cent among people with disabilities.

La Rue, a national of Guatemala, has served as the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression since 2008. He reports to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council in an independent and unpaid capacity.

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