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U.N. Human Rights Council: First Resolution on Internet Free Speech

(July 12, 2012) On July 5, 2012, the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations, unanimously adopted a resolution to protect the free speech of individuals on the Internet, the first such U.N. resolution of its kind. The resolution was adopted during the HRC’s 20th session, held July 18-July 6, in Geneva. While they expressed reservations about it, the representatives of China and Cuba were also among the 47 members of the HRC who approved the resolution. The United States was one of the countries that co-sponsored the resolution with Sweden, which spearheaded the motion. (Stephanie Nebehay, UN Forum Backs Web Freedom After Arab Spring, REUTERS (July 5, 2012).)

Resolution L13, the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, evokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; relevant international human rights treaties, including the two international covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights; and “all relevant resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in particular Council resolution 12/16 of 2 October 2009, and … General Assembly resolution 66/184 of 22 December 2011.” (United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council Twentieth Session, 20/L13… The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, A/HRC/20/L.13 (June 29, 2012), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website; U.N. HRC, Freedom of Opinion and Expression, A/HRC/12/L.14/Rev.1 (Sept. 30, 2009) [scroll down page to find]; U.N. General Assembly, Information and Communications Technologies for Development, A/RES/66/184 (Feb. 6, 2012), General Assembly of the United Nations website [scroll down page to find].)

The Resolution

1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; [and]

2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms; … . (20/L13… The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, supra.)

It urges all states, moreover, “to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation” in developing “media and information and communications facilities in all countries” and to adopt “special procedures” to take such issues into account. (Id.) Finally, the Resolution indicates that the HRC will continue consideration of human rights “on the Internet and in other technologies, as well as of how the Internet can be an important tool for development and for exercising human rights, … .” (Id.)

In the words of U.S. ambassador to the HRC Eileen Donahoe, “[i]t’s the first ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world.” (Nebehay, supra.) Even though the Resolution is a first for the U.N., U.N. officials pointed out that its International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has affirmed the principle of the right to freedom of opinion and expression “as an essential foundation of the Information Society” since 2003. (Id.; World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Declaration of Principles: Building the Information Society: A Global Challenge in the New Millennium, Doc. No. WSIS-03/Geneva/Doc/4-E (Dec. 12, 2003).)

In addition, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has worked with the ITU in holding workshops since 2006 “to trigger debates on freedom of expression and privacy protection” and in 2011 published “a pioneering standard-setting report” on the subject of Internet freedom and the law. (Freedom of Expression on Internet, UNESCO (last visited July 6, 2012); WILLIAM H. DUTTON et al., FREEDOM OF CONNECTION – FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: THE CHANGING LEGAL AND REGULATORY ECOLOGY SHAPING THE INTERNET (2011).)