At the plenary of the Human Rights Council meetings late last month, panelists had established that there was no need for any new human rights standards on freedom of expression; that the existing standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) were written to anticipate “any means” of communication. The only new element of the Internet is that it is interactive in real time. Challenges are mounting, though, especially with censorship by governments, as raised by the Google executive, but also with the role of the state to protect individuals from interference of their other fundamental rights as well as protection from criminalization. Some even suggested that a new set of rules might be needed, in spite of the adequacy of the basic standards, to address such issues as the right to development and cultural diversity, or establishing a global mechanism against censorship or filtering. As for a business role, references were made to voluntary corporate standards in the Global Network Initiative, the Internet Coalition, and the Silicon Valley Standard. The Turkish delegate provided some clarity by suggesting there were two issues – first the elementary issue of access, where the Turkish government has been partnering with the private sector to place computers in every school to ensure access; and secondly, to ensure freedom of expression itself through a legal framework to tighten definitions and restrictions for exceptions. There seemed to be widespread acceptance of the Google position that intermediaries should not be liable to regulate content, and many delegates spoke about working together against censorship.
China’s delegate contributed to the debate with an intervention that was endorsed by some twenty other Council members, and that emphasized the need to balance the right to freedom of expression with other fundamental economic and social rights including specific articles of international law against the undermining of the rights of others – those that protect others from speech that is inflammatory, criminal, corrupt or disruptive of cultural values. There continued to be an ebb and flow of ideas about how to apply existing interpretations for balancing these rights with the fundamental right to freedom of expression and who should be called upon to assume greater responsibilities. Several delegates referred to an important private sector role for this, while the Google executive reiterated the importance of a common platform or code. One delegate spoke about the importance of agreeing on how NOT to control the web and the need to answer the question WHO has the right to regulate what aspects of it. Finally, the issues of how much information might be legitimately accumulated by Internet providers and how to protect copyright and trademark and related intellectual property rights were touched on but not prominently featured in the debate. But this is only the beginning of the Human Rights Council’s role in this area, and we can certainly expect further deliberations and resolutions to define an expanded role for human rights impact assessments in Internet policy debates, codes and other mechanisms, whether they are at the Council or at the Internet Governance Forum or the follow-up process to the World Summit for the Information Society or at the International Telecommunications Union or even the UN General Assembly.