UNHCR Passes Resolution Reemphasizing the Need to Protect Human Rights Online

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on July 4, 2018, adopted another update to its landmark resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. In 2012 the UNHRC passed the first such resolution that became the first UN output in history to formally recognise that “the same rights people have offline must be protected online.”

The updated Resolution A/HRC/38/L.10, highlights online freedom of expression and privacy and recognizes UNESCO’s ongoing process of developing Internet Universality Indicator Framework based on the ROAM (Rights – Openness – Access – Multistakeholder) principles, and which contributes to advancing online human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The resolution draws attention to state-sponsored restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression online; condemns all undue restrictions of freedom of opinion and expression online that violate international law, and notes with concern that such restrictions have a significant impact on women and girls and other individuals who may face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

It also highlights privacy online as important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and other rights.

The Resolution emphasizes protecting safety of journalists in the digital age and condemns online attacks against women, including sexual and gender-based violence and abuse of women, including women journalists and media workers, in violation of their rights to privacy and to freedom of expression.

The revised Resolution acknowledges that encryption and other technical anonymity measures “can be important to ensure the enjoyment of human rights,” and encourages the private sector to work towards enabling technical solutions to secure and protect the confidentiality of digital communications while also calling on governments not to interfere with the usage of these measures.

The text of the UNHRC updated resolution includes a number of new elements that reflect the evolving importance of the Internet for the exercise of human rights online and offline. It was led by Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria and Tunisia and adopted by consensus with over 60 co-sponsors.

It also recognises the responsibilities of companies to respect human rights and elaborates on the scope of states’ responsibilities with regard to human rights on the internet while also calling on them to ensure effective remedies for internet-related human rights violations in accordance with their international obligations.

The Resolution supports the ability of journalists to be able to perform their work independently and without undue or unlawful interference, including by allowing them to secure their communications. It asks states to take concrete steps to address the gender digital divide; and recognises that international human rights law should be the basis of technology companies’ policies and terms of service.

The resolution expresses concern about arbitrary or unlawful collection, retention, processing, and use or disclosure of personal data on the internet that could violate or abuse human rights and therefore urged states to adopt, implement and, where necessary, reform laws, regulations, policies and other measures concerning personal data and privacy protection online, in order to prevent, mitigate and remedy human rights violations that result from such exploitation practices.

The resolution however contain some texts that government can exploit to impinge on freedom of expression and opinion, for instance its expression of concern about the spread of disinformation and propaganda on the internet, which can be designed and implemented so as to mislead people, violate human rights, and incite violence, hatred, discrimination or hostility.