Freedom of Expression Online

Freedom of Expression Online

The resources on this Module focus on some of the complex issues related to the digital exercise of freedom of expression. Internet, social media, search engines have largely transformed expression, information, communication. The selected readings highlight the mismatch between practices and the law trying to catch up with the advances of the technology, while seeking to make sense of the normative cacophony.

9 items found, showing 1 - 9
Author: ARTICLE 19
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ARTICLE 19 has submitted our response to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom expression’s call for comments on the issue of ‘content regulation in the digital age’. In the submission, they address risks to freedom of expression posed by developments in, and increased resort to, online content regulation, including in the following areas: 1) Companies’ compliance with state laws; 2) Companies’ self-regulatory initiatives; 3) Global take-down orders; 4) Insufficient reflection of the interests of users who face particular risks in companies’ Terms of Service; 5) Availability of appeals and remedies; 6) Algorithmic decision-making; amd 7) Lack of transparency. 

Article 19. ARTICLE 19's Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur's consultation on online content regulation. London: Article 19, 2017.

Author: Susan Benesch
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“Private social media companies regulate much more speech than any government does, and their platforms are being used to bring about serious harm. Yet companies govern largely on their own, and in secret. To correct this, advocates have proposed that companies follow international human-rights law. That law–by far the world’s best-known rules for governing speech–could improve regulation itself, and would also allow for better transparency and oversight on behalf of billions of people who use social media. This paper argues that for this to work, the law must first be interpreted to clarify how (and whether) each of its provisions are suited to this new purpose. For example, the law provides that speech may be restricted to protect national security, as one of only five permissible bases for limiting speech. Governments, for which international law was written, may regulate on that basis, but not private companies which have no national security to protect. To fill some of the gap, the paper explains and interprets the most relevant provisions of international human-rights law–Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which pertain to freedom of expression–for use by social media companies, in novel detail.”

Benesch, Susan. “But Facebook’s Not a Country: How to Interpret Human Rights Law for Social Media Companies.” Yale Journal on Regulation Online Bulletin 38 (2020): 86-111.

Author: Simin Kargar
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"This research bulletin analyzes the aftermath of the Telegram ban in Iran and presents detailed data on the performance of Psiphon, one of the most widely used circumvention tools among Iranians. The bulletin concludes by reviewing the overarching Internet policies in Iran behind the Telegram ban. In addition, it presents the challenges that arise from the implementation of these policies, both to users and circumvention tool providers, especially as increasingly aggressive network interference becomes the norm."

Simin Kargar, “Censorship and Collateral Damage: Analyzing the Telegram Ban In Iran” (September 5, 2018),

Author: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Agnès Callamard
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In this segment of the MOOC 'Freedom of Expression in the Age of Globalization' created by Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Agnès Callamard will highlight the implications of the liability of intermediaries on the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Callamard will focus, in particular, on the concept of censorship by proxy, or the privatization of censorship through the role and the functions of intermediaries. What is the significance of these various liability regimes for free speech? How may they interfere with the realization of my and your freedom of expression and information? These are the two questions I will try to answer in the remaining of that segment.

Author: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Dinah PoKemper
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In this segment of the MOOC created by Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Dinah PoKempner talks about surveillance and human rights today.

Fostering freedom online: the role of internet intermediaries

Author: UN, UNESCO
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The report “aims to shed light on how intermediaries – services that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression – both foster and restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances technologies, and business models."

MacKinnon, Rebecca, et al. Fostering freedom online: the role of internet intermediaries. Paris: UN, UNESCO, 2014.

Author: Jack M. Balkin
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Balkin argues that the conception of free speech which characterized the 20th century is inadequate to protect free speech and expression in the 21st century due to the transition from a dualistic model of speech regulation with two players to a pluralist model of speech regulation with multiple players. In this essay, he frames free speech as operationalizing as a triangle, with States and the European Union at one end, internet-infrastructure companies at another, and different kinds of speakers at the third end. He analyses the three problems which this triangle creates: 1) new-school speech regulation which produces collateral censorship and digital prior restraint, 2) the absence of due process and transparency in the manner in which privatized bureaucracies govern end-users, resulting in abuse and arbitrariness, and 3) the vulnerability of end-users to digital surveillance and manipulation. He discusses the ways in which States should or should not regulate the digital ecosystem in order to align with the values of freedom of speech and proposes reforms which can be implemented by Governments in consonance with the Constitutional guarantees of free speech and the press as long as they are properly-designed. These reforms are: 1) structural regulation with the aims of promoting competition and preventing discrimination by basic internet services and payment systems, 2) guaranteeing curatorial due process, and 3) the treatment of social media companies as information fiduciaries towards their end-users, who are responsible for upholding duties of trustworthiness and good faith.

Balkin, Jack M. “Free Speech is a Triangle.” Columbia Law Review 118, no. 7 (2018): 2011-2056.

Author: UNESCO
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The report “provides a new perspective on the social and political dynamics behind the threats to expression. It develops a conceptual framework on the ‘ecology of freedom of expression’ for discussing the broad context of policy and practice that should be taken into consideration in discussions of this issue.”

Dutton, William H. Freedom of connection, freedom of expression: the changing legal and regulatory ecology shaping the Internet. Paris: UN, UNESCO, 2011.

Author: UN, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
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“This report examines the international standards and principles applicable to the protection of freedom of opinion and expression during elections in the digital age. In the 2014 report to the Human Rights Council, the previous mandate holder examined the State’s obligations to respect and ensure freedom of expression in electoral contexts. This report reviews the nature and scope of these obligations in light of advances in technology and their impact on elections. Advances in information and communications technology have been critical to facilitating access to information and the free flow of ideas during elections. However, State and non-State actors have also exploited these advances to interfere with democratic participation and access to information during election periods, and to undermine the integrity of electoral processes. This report focuses on four such interferences: network shutdowns, efforts to combat the perceived spread of “fake news” and online disinformation, Direct Denial of Service (“DDoS”) attacks and interference with voters’ records and data.”

UN, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Freedom of Expression and Elections in the Digital Age. Research Paper 1/2019. June 2019.