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Internet freedom affirmed as a right

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Friday affirming that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.

The resolution stated the organisation's continued commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet and in other technologies.

It received support from 30 of the 47 Human Rights Council members, including the US, as well as many non-member states, such as the UK. Even China, which has some of the most repressive Internet policies, and nations that instituted clampdowns on Internet freedom following anti-government uprisings, like Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, have signed the document. SA is not on the list of signatories.

The UN resolution also recognises the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating development goals. It calls on all nations to promote and facilitate access to the Internet, and for international cooperation in developing media, information and communications facilities in all countries.

But the non-binding nature of the resolution means signatory countries will not have to make any changes to how they regulate Internet access and expression.

Internet freedom has become a global topic of contention recently, as its role in political activism grows and nations like China and Russia move towards more controlling policies. There was also widespread online outcry in January against the US's Stop Online Privacy Act and Protect IP Act. Both were consequently shelved, and earlier this week a coalition of Internet users, Web-related organisations, and free speech activists presented the Declaration of Internet Freedom, a petition calling for a free and open Internet.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says thinking around Internet freedom has shifted substantially in the past two years “as civil society, government and digital vigilantes all have tried to claim their rights, their jurisdiction and their space.

“Governments and a variety of commercial interests, ranging from the music industry to telecommunications, have become willing bedfellows in attempting to lock down controls and limitations of expression and information-sharing. Very often, the ostensible freedoms they purport to be protecting in the process are precisely those they are endangering.”

In response, Goldstuck adds, non-governmental organisations and high-profile mavericks, such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and hacktivist group Anonymous, have made it clear the debate is not owned by authorised or recognised entities.

He says non-binding support showed by countries like China means very little in practice. “[It's] about as effective at the UN as its tut-tut to Assad when he is excusing the murder of civilians in Syria. It is the international equivalent of standing up to a 120kg bully on the beach by drawing a line in the sand and running away.”

Goldstuck says the Human Rights Council has always been abused by those who want to legitimise their own abuse of human rights, “so we can expect no different when it comes to Internet freedoms. Countries with the poorest record on Internet freedom can be expected to be the most active supporters of this resolution, which they will then be able to use as a cloak of respectability over their abuse of freedom of speech.”

He believes the UN resolution marks the beginning of a new phase of attempts to restrict Internet freedom. “The fact that its signatories include countries that are well-known for their abuse of such freedom is the signal that it is aimed at legitimising abuse rather than countering abuse.

“Expect the struggle against Internet freedom to intensify in the wake of the resolution.”

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