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UN Week – 6/13/11

June 15, 2011

John and Douglas Carey, Editors,

Contents of this issue: Internet freedom.

In contrast with yesterday’s New York Times front-page story about “internet detour around censors,” the UN had recently launched a different kind of effort to defeat governmental disruption of electronic communications. While the US methods described by the Times might be called technological, the UN’s approach is more ideological.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, issued a report dated May 16th, A/HRC/17/27, which “explores key trends and challenges to the right of all individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the Internet.

“The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole. Chapter III of the report underlines the applicability of international human rights norms and standards on the right to freedom of opinion and expression to the Internet as a communication medium, and sets out the exceptional circumstances under which the dissemination of certain types of information may be restricted.

“Chapters IV and V address two dimensions of Internet access re-spectively: (a) access to content; and (b) access to the physical and techni-cal infrastructure required to access the Internet in the first place.

“More specifically, chapter IV outlines some of the ways in which States are increasingly censoring information online, namely through: arbitrary blocking or filtering of content; criminalization of legitimate expression; imposition of intermediary liability; disconnecting users from Internet access, including on the basis of intellectual property rights law; cyber-attacks; and inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection. Chapter V addresses the issue of universal access to the Internet.” Id. at 1.

Among La Rue’s conclusions are these: “45. While States are the duty-bearers for human rights, private actors and business enterprises also have a responsibility to respect human rights. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur highlights the framework of ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ which has been developed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. The framework rests on three pillars: (a) the duty of the State to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication; (b) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved, and (c) the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.

“46. The Special Rapporteur notes that multi-stakeholder initiatives are essential to deal effectively with issues related to the Internet, and the Global Network Initiative serves as a helpful example to encourage good practice by corporations. Although only three corporations, namely Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, have participated in this initiative so far, the Special Rapporteur welcomes their commitment to undertake a human rights impact assessment of their decisions, including before entering a foreign market, and to ensure transparency and accountability when confronted with situations that may undermine the rights of freedom of expression and privacy. Google’s Transparency Report is an outcome of such work, and provides information on Government inquiries for information about users and requests for Google to take down or censor content, as well as statistical information on traffic to Google services, such as YouTube. By illustrating traffic patterns for a given country or region, it allows users to discern any disruption in the free flow of information, whether it is due to Government censorship or a cable cut.” Id. at 13.

All this brings to mind the issue of “net neutrality.” This means that Internet service providers should not be allowed to provide “tiered” service, for instance giving discounted rates to heavy users while charging higher rates to occasional or amateur users. I wonder if Mr. La Rue will examine that question. It seems likely, since he has his sights trained on corporations as well as on governments.

This subject brings the UN into contact with private organizations more than has been the case in the past. Historically the UN dealt only with governments. So this may be a new direction for the UN.

Friends, that’s all for this June 13th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Do send your own views on these or other UN-related questions to

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