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    Module 5: Trends in Censorship by Private Actors

    It is now well established that “the same rights that people have offline must be protected online”.(1) However, there is growing appreciation in international law and human rights that online censorship by non-state actors threatens an array of rights, most notably the right to freedom of expression. Litigators and activists must now contend not only with state abuses of digital rights but also violations by private actors.

    According to the 2011 Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression (UNSR), the “framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.” This is particularly true for freedom of expression, as the UNSR explains: the “[i]nternet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” The rise of the internet has brought to the fore new, private actors who often wield significant power. Social media platforms and multinational online companies exercise significant control in the facilitation of people’s enjoyment of their human rights online. Like many state actors, non-state actors do not always act in accordance with the basic principles of international human rights law.

    This module grapples with some of the long-term threats to freedom of expression from non-state actors, as well as emergent threats. Alongside a brief overview of relevant topics, it provides practical guidance on how to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are respected, protected, and promoted online.


    1. UN Human Rights Council, ‘The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet’ A/HRC/RES/20/8 (16 July 2012) (accessible at See further UN Human Rights Council ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’ A/HRC/41/41 (17 May 2019) (“2019 Special Rapporteur Report”) (accessible at Back