Freedom Online Coalition Expresses Concern Over Growing Internet Censorship

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Matthew Shears, Interim Co-Chair, FCO
Matthew Shears, Interim Co-Chair, FCO

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has issued a Joint Statement expressing deep concern about the growing trend of state-sponsored Internet censorship.

The statement was formally introduced and presented on May 16, 2018 at the FOC Open Forum session at RightsCon 2018 in Toronto, Canada.

In the Statement, the FOC expressed deep concern about the growing trend of state-sponsored Internet censorship, which challenges the Coalition’s goals of protecting and promoting human rights online and protecting and extending an open and interoperable Internet, as affirmed in the FOC’s Tallinn Agenda.

The FOC referred to the term Internet censorship as “all state-driven content restriction, moderation or manipulation online when it is in violation of international human rights law, and notably of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including those which are the result of automated processes or algorithms, executed directly or through third parties”.

The Statement highlights different issues state-sponsored internet censorship can pose to human rights online including interfering with citizens’ participation in representative government and the conduct of public affairs; attempts to stifle political dissent online; suppressing various forms of expression and access to information online; online discrimination of women and girls and other individuals whose expression and interests are not equally represented by mainstream media sources.

According to FOC, these actions can violate a state’s international obligation to respect, promote and fulfil human rights, including the freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, as well as the right to peaceful assembly and the freedom of association.

Furthermore, FOC pointed to recent trends where state-sponsored Internet censorship have been used to manipulate and suppress online expression protected by international law, users have been subjected to arbitrary or unlawful surveillance, liability laws have been used to force ICT companies to self-censor expressions protected by international law, networks have been disrupted to deny users access to information among others.

In addition, FOC noted that many forms of Internet censorship are inconsistent with international human rights instruments, these include Articles 19 of the ICCPR, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, as well as the 2016 UN Human Rights Council Resolution (A/HRC/RES/32/13) on the Promotion, Protection, and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet.

To address this trend, the FOC calls upon governments to refrain from content restrictions on the Internet that violate international human rights law and to create an enabling environment for free expression and access to information online.

The coalition also urged all stakeholders “to work together toward a shared approach – firmly grounded in respect for international human rights law – that aims to evaluate, respond to, and if necessary, remedy state-sponsored efforts to restrict, moderate, or manipulate online content, and that calls for greater transparency of private Internet companies’ mediation, automation, and remedial policies.”

The FOC is a multilateral coalition of 30 governments that collaborate to advance Internet freedom worldwide. The Coalition provides a forum for like-minded governments to coordinate efforts and work with civil society, the private sector, and other Internet stakeholders to support the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms online.

The FOC encourages all states that support an open and interoperable Internet to apply to join the FOC.