The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has issued a joint statement on COVID-19 and Internet Freedom, in which it reaffirmed its commitment to promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and working to support Internet freedom for individuals worldwide – including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and privacy rights online.
Expressing concern about the human rights implications of certain measures introduced by governments in response to the COVID-19 crisis, such as the use of arbitrary or unlawful surveillance practices, network shutdowns and censorship, FOC called upon governments worldwide to refrain from adopting or implementing laws and policies that may negatively affect the enjoyment of human rights. It also urged governments to promote an enabling environment for free expression and access to information and to take appropriate action to address Internet shutdowns, digital divides and spread of disinformation online.
The governments of the United States, Canada and Finland led the development of the statement with input from other FOC member states and the multistakeholder FOC Advisory Network.
While sharing the concerns of people everywhere in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic and recognising government efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus by enacting emergency measures, the FOC expressed concern with the human rights implications of certain measures, practices, and digital applications introduced by governments in response to the crisis including the use of arbitrary or unlawful surveillance practices; partial or complete Internet shutdowns; online content regulation and censorship that are inconsistent with human rights law. The Coalition further expressed concern over the potential short-and-long-term impact of these actions on the rights of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and privacy rights, even after the pandemic is over.
The FOC pointed out that lack of accountability and lack of effective remedy for violations and abuses of human rights online pose a risk of reduced trust in public authorities, which, in turn, might undermine the effectiveness of any future public response.
Furthermore, the FOC expressed concerned over the spread of disinformation online and activity that seeks to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic with malign intent including the manipulation of information and spread of disinformation to undermine the international rules-based order and erode support for the democracy and human rights that underpin it. It noted that access to factual and accurate information, including through a free and independent media online and offline, helps people take the necessary precautions to prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus, save lives, and protect vulnerable population groups.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FOC member States, while committing themselves to do the same, called upon governments worldwide:
- To refrain from adopting or implementing laws and policies that may negatively affect the enjoyment of human rights, or that unreasonably restrict civic space online and offline, in violation of states’ obligations under international human rights law;
- To promote an enabling environment for free expression and access to information online to protect the privacy and to refrain from content restrictions that violate international human rights law;
- To take appropriate measures to counter violence, intimidation, threats and attacks against individuals and groups, including human rights defenders, on the Internet and through digital technologies;
- To immediately end Internet shutdowns, and ensure the broadest possible access to online services by taking steps to bridge digital divides; and
- To commit that any actions were taken pursuant to emergency measures or laws be subject to effective transparency and accountability measures and lifted when the pandemic has passed.
The statement can be read or downloaded from here.
The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is a group of 31 countries deeply committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its members believe that human rights and fundamental freedoms that individuals have offline must also be protected online. They are committed to working together to support Internet freedom for individuals worldwide – including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, as well as privacy rights online.