The Right to Freedom of Expression
Module 2: Digital Rights
International law is clear that the right to freedom of expression applies online just 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 Committee (UNHRCttee) 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 or pursuant to expansive and vague legislation, and with little transparency or accountability.
- Online content regulation through overly broad and vague cybercrimes legislation which, although ostensibly intending to counter genuinely criminal activity online, such as child pornography, is often misused by governments to stifle criticism and free speech.(2)
- The rapid growth in misinformation and disinformation on online platforms leading to a backlash from states, which react with ‘fake news’ regulations that often unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression.(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 attacks.
- Enabling free, full and socially relevant access to the internet, including overcoming the challenges of unaffordability while preventing 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.