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.

10 items found, showing 1 - 10

Internet Governance

Author: Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
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Africa’s ICT think-tank - the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) - published a report documenting the trends of the last decade in internet freedom in Africa. CIPESA has been releasing its annual State of Internet Freedom in Africa report since 2014; the 2023 publication celebrates the report’s 10th anniversary. Thematically reflecting on the past years of research and advocacy for digital rights in Africa, this special edition offers a clear look at the future. The featured essays discuss “Digital Democracy Vs. [Digital] Authoritarianism,” internet shutdowns, social media content regulation, data governance, online activism, new forms of internet censorship, gender dynamics online, state accountability for digital rights, disinformation, media literacy, and surveillance. “[W]hile the essays in this series largely paint a grim picture of where Africa stands today, not all is doom and gloom,” writes Dr. Wairagala Wakabi, CIPESA’s Executive Director. “Each essay in this report offers suggestions for how these authoritarian roadblocks can be navigated to ensure that the great majority of citizens in Africa can enjoy their online rights and for digital democracy to flourish.”

Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). A Decade of Internet Freedom in Africa: Recounting the Past, Shaping the Future. Kampala: CIPESA, 2023.

Author: OSCE
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“Artificial intelligence (AI) – a broad concept used in policy discussions to refer to many different types of technology – greatly influences and impacts the way people seek, receive, impart and access information and how they exercise their right to freedom of expression in the digital ecosystem. If implemented responsibly, AI can benefit societies, but there is a genuine risk that its deployment by States and private companies, such as internet intermediaries, could have a deteriorating effect on human rights… [This Paper] maps the key challenges to freedom of expression presented by AI across the OSCE region, in light of international and regional standards on human rights and AI. It identifies a number of overarching problems that AI poses to freedom of expression and human rights in general, in particular: (a.) The limited understanding of the implications for freedom of expression caused by AI, in particular machine learning; (b.) Lack of respect for freedom of expression in content moderation and curation; (c.) State and non-State actors circumventing due process and rule of law in AI-powered content moderation; (d.) Lack of transparency regarding the entire process of AI design, deployment and implementation; (e.) Lack of accountability and independent oversight over AI systems; and, (f.) Lack of effective remedies for violation of the right to freedom of expression in relation to AI. This Paper observes that these problems became more pronounced in the first months of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic incentivized States and the private sector to use AI even more, as part of measures introduced in response to the pandemic. A tendency to revert to technocratic solutions, including AI-powered tools, without adequate societal debate or democratic scrutiny was witnessed. Using four specific case studies (“security threats”; “hate speech”; media pluralism and diversity online; and the impact of AI-powered State surveillance on freedom of expression), this Paper shows how these problems manifest themselves. This Paper concludes that there is a need to further raise awareness, and improve understanding, of the impact of AI related to decision-making policies and practices on freedom of expression, next to having a more systematic overview of regional approaches and methodologies in the OSCE region. It provides a number of preliminary recommendations to OSCE participating States and internet intermediaries, to help ensure that freedom of expression and information are better protected when AI is deployed.”

OSCE. “Artificial Intelligence and Freedom of Expression”. 2020.

Author: Kalina Bontcheva and Julie Posetti (eds)
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“[The Report] uses the term ‘disinformation’ to describe false or misleading content with potentially harmful consequences, irrespective of the underlying intentions or behaviours in producing and circulating such messages. The focus is not on definitions, but on how States, companies, institutions and organisations around the world are responding to this phenomenon, broadly conceived. The work includes a novel typology of 11 responses, making holistic sense of the disinformation crisis on an international scale, including during COVID-19. It also provides a 23-step tool developed to assess disinformation responses, including their impact on freedom of expression. The research concludes that disinformation cannot be addressed in the absence of freedom of expression concerns, and it explains why actions to combat disinformation should support, and not violate, this right. It also underlines that access to reliable and trustworthy information, such as that produced by critical independent journalism, is a counter to disinformation.”

Kalina Bontcheva and Julie Posetti (eds). “Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression”. Broadband Commission Research Report on Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation on the Internet 2020.

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: UN Human Rights Council, Irene Khan
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“In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression examines the threats posed by disinformation to human rights, democratic institutions and development processes. While acknowledging the complexities and challenges posed by disinformation in the digital age, the Special Rapporteur finds that the responses by States and companies have been problematic, inadequate and detrimental to human rights. She calls for multidimensional and multi-stakeholder responses that are well grounded in the international human rights framework and urges companies to review their business model and States to recalibrate their responses to disinformation, enhancing the role of free, independent and diverse media, investing in media and digital literacy, empowering individuals and rebuilding public trust.”

UN Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Irene Khan. Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression. A/HRC/47/25. April 2021.

Author: UNESCO, Tarlach McGonagle, Maciek Bednarski, Mariana Francese Coutinho, and Arthur Zimin.
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“Digital companies are enabling politicians, political parties and voters to communicate in unprecedented ways, and expanding opportunities for seeking, receiving and imparting political information and ideas. Alongside positive developments, there also growing concerns about emerging and increasing threats to the integrity and credibility of elections, as well as the media’s contribution to free, fair, transparent and peaceful electoral processes. This report highlights three converging trends in media and elections in digital times: 1) the rise of disinformation, 2) intensifying attacks on journalists, and 3) disruptions linked to the use of information and communication technology in electoral arrangements. Offering possible responses to the challenges at hand, this study is a tool for governments, election practitioners, media organizations, journalists, civil society, the private sector, academia and individuals.” This issue brief on ‘Elections and Media in Digital Times’ is part of the UNESCO In Focus series ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development’.

UNESCO, Tarlach McGonagle et. al. “Elections and Media in Digital Times”. 2019.

Author: Access Now
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“The International and national laws recognize that extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. This means that certain fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression and opinion and the right to seek and impart information, may be restricted to address the current health crisis as long as governments apply basic democratic principles and a series of safeguards, and the interference is lawful, limited in time, and not arbitrary. Governments, companies, NGOs, and individuals alike have a responsibility to do their part to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 health crisis and to show solidarity and respect for each other. In this paper, we provide recommendations for protecting freedom of expression and opinion and the right to impart and receive information to enable governments​ to fight the COVID-19 health crisis in a rights-respecting manner. There will be an aftermath to the COVID-19 outbreak and the measures governments put in place right now will determine what it will look like. The recommendations outlined below will help ensure that the rule of law, and the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the right to receive and to impart information, are protected throughout this crisis and in the future. Under no circumstances should any government allow people’s fundamental rights to fall victim to this pandemic.” 

Access Now. “Fighting Misinformation and Defending Free Expression during COVID-19: Recommendations for States”. 2020.

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: The Transatlantic Working Group
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“The Transatlantic High Level Working Group on Content Moderation Online and Freedom of Expression was formed to identify and encourage adoption of scalable solutions to reduce hate speech, violent extremism, and viral deception online, while protecting freedom of expression and a vibrant global internet. This report recommends a flexible regulatory framework that seeks to contribute to trust, transparency, and accountability. It is based upon: (1) transparency rules for platform activities, operations, and products; (2) an accountability regime holding platforms to their promises and transparency obligations; (3) a three-tier disclosure structure to enable the regulator, vetted researchers, and the public to judge performance; (4) independent redress mechanisms such as social media councils and e-courts to mitigate the impact of moderation on freedom of expression; and (5) an ABC framework for dealing with disinformation that addresses actors and behavior before content.”

The Transatlantic Working Group. “Freedom and Accountability: A Transatlantic Framework for Moderating Speech Online”. 2020.   

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.