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U.N. Expert Calls Internet Freedom Fundamental but Often Violated
June 9, 2011

By Jeff Baron
Staff Writer

Washington – When the young United Nations adopted a declaration of universal rights in 1948, it included the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”

A new U.N. report says that in the 21st century that has to include freedom on the Internet – a freedom it says many countries are increasingly failing to honor.

The report was written by Frank La Rue, the special rapporteur, or investigator, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

With 2 billion people online, La Rue writes, the Internet has become “one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.”

But instead of doing everything they can to promote Internet access for their citizens, La Rue says, many governments are setting up increasingly strenuous efforts to block Internet content, track its users and punish them for what they say. He says the governments go far beyond the internationally accepted standards for restricting Internet freedom – such as to protect national security from imminent threats and to protect individuals, as in child pornography – and they impose restrictions without following the rule of law.

The “unique features of the Internet, which allow individuals to spread information instantly, to organize themselves, and to inform the world about situations of injustice and inequality, have also created fear among governments and the powerful,” the report says.

Governments have reacted with a variety of controls that violate freedom of expression, the report says, including filters on broad areas of Internet content, blocking access to many sites, and the wholesale shutdown of the Internet “to prevent users from accessing or disseminating information at key political moments, such as elections, times of social unrest, or anniversaries of politically or historically significant events.”

The report also notes the rise in various types of cyberattacks on dissidents and activists, apparently by governments, to deny them the use of the Internet, and efforts to strip away the anonymity of people who use the Internet for politics.

People who exercise their right to express themselves are suffering because “legitimate online expression is being criminalized,” La Rue says. He notes that in 2010, Reporters Without Borders counted 109 people worldwide who were imprisoned for what they had posted on their blogs.

Among his recommendations, La Rue calls upon countries that block websites to provide “full details regarding the necessity and justification for blocking each individual website.” He also says Internet providers should not be held liable for what users post – an approach that forces the Internet providers to become censors.

Sanja Kelly, a senior researcher and editor at advocacy group Freedom House, says her group’s research supports La Rue’s conclusions.