The Right to Freedom of Expression Online
Module 2: Introduction to Digital Rights
International law is clear that the right to freedom of expression exists as much online as it does offline, though there are challenges in implementing this principle in practice. For example, article 19(2) of the ICCPR is explicit that the right to freedom of expression applies “regardless of frontiers,” and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) General Comment No. 34 further clarifies that this includes internet-based modes of communication.(1)
Challenges to freedom of expression online
Some examples of the new challenges to exercising freedom of expression online include:
- The blocking, filtering, and removal of content, often executed by internet intermediaries on behalf of government outside of regulatory or legislative provisions, and with little transparency or accountability.
- Online content regulation through overly broad and vague cybercrimes legislation intending to counter genuinely criminal activity online, such as child pornography, but often misused by governments to stifle criticism and free speech.(2)
- The rapid growth in misinformation on online platforms leading to backlash from states, who attempt to regulate it with broad ‘fake news’ regulations.(3)
- Defining and protecting journalists and the media in an environment now saturated with bloggers and social media writers, and defending them from online harassment, particularly women who are disproportionately subject to online harms.
- Enabling free and equal access to the internet, including overcoming the challenges of unaffordability while preventing against the distortion that can be created by zero-rating.(4)
- Tackling the spread of hate speech on online platforms without placing undue responsibility on private actors to proactively limit content on their platforms.
- Protecting the public from invasive uses of private data and protecting anonymous communications, while simultaneously enabling accountability for illegal behaviour online.