An official website of the United States government

Donahoe: As Governments We Must Protect the Fundamental Freedoms of Our Citizens Online
February 29, 2012

Statement by Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
Panel on Freedom of Expression on the Internet
Human Rights Council

Thank you, Mr. Vice President,

We thank the Swedish delegation and the other co-sponsors for organizing this panel, and the esteemed panelists for their insights on this increasingly relevant topic.   I wanted to start by underscoring the very simple yet profound point made by Foreign Minister Bildt at the top of this panel, which is that the world is moving online.  Whether with respect to economic activity, political activity, social activity, the reality is the world is moving online, and all of us must get comfortable with this reality.

We are here to affirm the very simple and uncontroversial proposition that the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association are the birthright of every person.  These rights apply to persons and their activity on the Internet and mobile technologies just as they do to persons and their activity offline.  We believe very deeply that the sharing and exchange of information and ideas online and offline strengthens societies and empowers individuals.

As Special Rapporteur LaRue and others have noted, we do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet.   These fundamental rights, and the narrow set of permissible limitations on them, are well established.  They do not need further elaboration or updating.  No deed is more noble – or more evil – when it is committed online rather than offline.

Governments that are confident in their popular support do not feel threatened by about what people say or the opinions they express. Rather than focusing on so-called “abuses” of freedom of expression, we believe this body should focus urgently on protecting the ability of individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

The United States is concerned that some States are using filtering and blocking to unduly limit freedom of expression.  Some States conduct illicit monitoring of their citizens’ online activity in order to suppress political dissent. Others are attempting to redefine their “security” in ways that would legitimize suppression of human rights.

We are also concerned about an emerging trend in which some governments attempt to suppress dissent online by requiring private Internet companies to block political content deemed “subversive,” and by requiring Internet service providers and other companies to track or monitor  online activities of their citizens in order to target or punish them for political or other dissent.

We encourage governments to uphold the strong protections for freedom of expression that are embodied in international human rights instruments, including when they seek to address security concerns and we encourage them not to require private companies to become complicit in suppressing dissent.  As governments, we must protect the fundamental freedoms of our citizens online so that information technologies support progress instead of facilitate repression.

We would like to raise one are for the panelists to consider more fully which is the problem of states suppressing dissent by forcing private Internet companies to block political content and track user activity to facilitate punishment of political activists.

Thank you.