Keeping the channels open: reflections on the importance of freedom of expression online
Recently, we’ve seen governments across the world introduce legislation that is incompatible with international human rights standards and imposes prohibitive policies on bloggers and online media outlets that are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression. While the future of communicative technologies is still expansive and untapped, it is important to fight for our ability to use it to its fullest potential.
We are quickly approaching the stage where access to high-speed internet is as important to the quality of life of citizens as utilities like electricity and public transportation are. But as more people plug in and join the conversation, our phone screens are acting like mirrors to the speakerphone nature of traditional media — to the masses, from a minority — and we’re now seeing a reversal of who is holding the microphone.
While MLDI sees this as a step in the right direction, we’ve also seen that this (r)evolutionary, democratic type of civil engagement feels like a threat to many governments. They feel the need to limit people’s access to these spaces; to censor the way people communicate, and by extension, their ability to critique things they are displeased with.
That’s why we launched the Digital Rights Advocates Project in Sub-Saharan Africa: we want to train lawyers on issues relating to freedom of expression online and give more legal professionals the capacity to defend bloggers and online media (applications for our West Africa workshop are now open). It’s also why we engage in strategic litigation to challenge legislation that restricts freedom of expression online and why we file third party interventions in landmark cases which could impact the regulation of online media. You can read more about some of the strategic cases and third-party interventions we have been working on involving online communications and the internet here:
- Internet shutdowns (Cameroon)
- False news on the internet (the Gambia)
- Intermediary liability (Hungary)
- Anonymity online (Austria)
- Right to be forgotten (France)
Last Thursday was World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, which commemorates the founding of the International Communications Union (formerly the International Telegraph Convention). “Why, in 2018, are we commemorating the first International Telegraph Convention?” would be a fair question to ask, after all, it’s been nearly five years since the transmission of the world’s last telegram. But World Telecommunication and Information Society Day — an initiative championed by the United Nations since its inception in 2006 — isn’t about the ways we’ve communicated in the past, it’s about the possibilities of the future.
To that note, the UN points to the transformative potential that the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) have for fostering freer societies and economies. Here at MLDI we couldn’t agree more: we know that open channels for communication make society better, and that the Internet can provide the necessary platforms for people who want to be more engaged in their communities, society and democracy.
MLDI would like to thank Dylan Bell for drafting this piece on behalf of MLDI.