The UN has ruled that from now on, Internet access will be counted as one of every human’s basic rights. This is stipulated in a freshly passed resolution for the “promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.” The document also condemns any government that willingly disrupts their citizens’ free access to the Internet.
It’s a great time for the Internet! The resolution passed last Friday by the UN stresses that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online,” lending even more weight to the freedom of expression protected by articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The resolution is a much-needed response to increased pressure on freedom of expression online in all parts of the world”, said Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, a British organization working to promote freedom of expression and information.
“From impunity for the killings of bloggers to laws criminalising legitimate dissent on social media, basic human rights principles are being disregarded to impose greater controls over the information we see and share online,” he added.
The document is an official recognition of one simple fact: the Internet is an incredibly powerful tool that “facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally” and we should all be free to access and use it — regardless of what our governments are after or what society thinks our role should be. Increasing Internet access and the spread of technology is one of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as they play a central role in “accelerating human progress.” It highlights a few goals that countries should strive for to ensure freedom of expression on the web:
- Addressing security concerns in “a way that ensures freedom and security on the Internet.”
- Creating a framework so that human rights violations and abuses against persons exercising their human rights are accountable by law.
- Recognizing the importance of online privacy.
- Recognizing the importance of education for women and girls in relevant technology fields.
The UN’s decision is a huge step forward for those who strive for an Internet where everyone is equal and free, but it’s not a final ruling on the subject. The resolution passed with a majority vote, being supported by 70 countries. It was opposed by countries including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, which was to be expected given their political climate. What was surprising however was the opposition from democratic countries like South Africa, India or Indonesia. The issue was one of the passages that “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online.”
“We are disappointed that democracies like South Africa, Indonesia, and India voted in favour of these hostile amendments to weaken protections for freedom of expression online…A human rights based approach to providing and expanding Internet access, based on states’ existing international human rights obligations, is essential to achieving the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, and no state should be seeking to slow this down,” Hughes added.
“Governments must now act on the international commitments in this resolution to protect freedom of expression and other human rights online, at all times.”
The biggest shortcoming of the resolution is the fact that it’s non-binding in nature — it can’t be enforced legally. Such a high-level ruling is bound to create awareness worldwide, giving the public some solid footing to deal with their governments on this issue. Until the UN comes to a final legally binding decision, however, it’s only going to be a tiny foothold.