Limitation on the Right to Freedom of Expression
Module 3: Access to the Internet
In 2016, the UNSR on freedom of expression noted: “The blocking of Internet platforms and the shutting down of telecommunications infrastructure are persistent threats, for even if they are premised on national security or public order, they tend to block the communications of often millions of individuals”.(1) This imposes an obvious restriction on the right to freedom of expression, and may further limit a range of other rights.
The 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet highlights the egregious nature that these limitations can cause:(2)
“(a) Mandatory blocking of entire websites, (IP) [internet protocol] addresses, ports, network protocols or types of uses (such as social networking) is an extreme measure – analogous to banning a newspaper or broadcaster – which can only be justified in accordance with international standards, for example where necessary to protect children against sexual abuse.
(b) Content filtering systems which are imposed by a government or commercial service provider and which are not end-user controlled are a form of prior censorship and are not justifiable as a restriction on freedom of expression.
(c) Products designed to facilitate end-user filtering should be required to be accompanied by clear information to end-users about how they work and their potential pitfalls in terms of over-inclusive filtering.”
Internet and telecommunications shutdowns that involve measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online are a violation of human rights law.(3) In the 2016 UN Resolution on the Internet, the UN Human Rights Council stated that it “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and calls upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures”(4)
As set out in General Comment No. 34, adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee:(5)
“Any restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs or any other internet-based, electronic or other such information dissemination system, including systems to support such communication, such as internet service providers or search engines, are only permissible to the extent that they are compatible with [article 19(3) of the ICCPR]. Permissible restrictions generally should be content-specific; generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems are not compatible with [article 19(3) of the ICCPR]. It is also inconsistent with [article 19(3) of the ICCPR] to prohibit a site or an information dissemination system from publishing material solely on the basis that it may be critical of the government or the political social system espoused by the government.”
The UNSR on freedom of expression has noted that internet shutdowns are often ordered covertly and without a legal basis, and violate the requirement that restrictions must be provided for in law.(6) Similarly, shutdowns ordered pursuant to vaguely formulated laws and regulations also fail to satisfy the legality requirement.(7) In some countries, this has led to the government enacting new laws to expressly allow for shutdowns to take place.(8)
The UNSR on Freedom of Expression has further noted that network shutdowns invariably fail to meet the standard of necessity,(9) and are generally disproportionate.(10) States frequently seek to justify this on the ground of national security, which is discussed further below. For example, according to the digital rights advocacy group, Access Now, 2021 marked the fourth consecutive year that India was responsible for imposing the highest number of internet shutdowns globally, with 106 shutdown incidents recorded in 2021.(11) According to their research, political instability was the reason for most of India’s 2021 shutdowns (80 cases), followed by protests (9 cases) and communal violence (7 cases).(12)
The Supreme Court of India on internet shutdowns
The Supreme Court of India considered legality of an internet shutdown in Kashmir in their 2010 judgment in Bhasin v. Union of India.(13) In their reasons, the Court found that a complete shutdown of the internet was a ‘drastic measure’ that should be “considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable’” and that the State “must assess the existence of an alternate less intrusive remedy.”(14) The Court also found that any suspension of the internet must meet the requirement of proportionality and not extend longer than necessary.(15)
Although the Court adopted a circumspect approach towards internet shutdowns, international standards go even further. Under international human rights law, internet shutdowns are always unjustifiable restrictions of freedom of expression.(16)
In relation to the blocking and filtering of content, there may indeed be circumstances where such measures are justifiable. For example, in relation to websites distributing child pornography. Such measures are still required to meet the three‑part test for restrictions, which will need to be assessed on a case‑by-case basis.
Similarly, limitations to network neutrality may also be permissible in certain circumstances, for example for legitimate network management purposes. However, as a general principle, there should be no discrimination in the treatment of internet data and traffic, regardless of the device, content, author, origin and/or destination of the content, service or application.(17) Further, internet intermediaries should be transparent about any traffic or information management practices they employ, and relevant information on such practices should be made available in a form that is accessible to all stakeholders.(18)