UN council: Seriously, nations, stop switching off the damn internet

Online freedom resolution passes despite best efforts by Russia, China et al


The United Nations officially condemned the practice of countries shutting down access to the internet at a meeting of the Human Rights Council on Friday.

A resolution [PDF] entitled The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet effectively extends human rights held offline to the internet. It was passed by consensus, but only after a determined effort by a number of countries, including China and Russia, to pull out key parts of the text.

In particular, a number of states – notable by their authoritarian stances – were opposed to the resolution's focus on the need for an accessible and open internet, and its condemnation of violations against people for expressing their views online. A vote planned for Thursday was delayed to Friday after the issue became heated.

Four amendments pulling out that language were tabled, but none were adopted after an impassioned debate.

Some were surprised by the 13 other countries that lined up with Russia and China in an effort to delete the text on ensuring access to the internet. Among such authoritarian regimes as Saudi Arabia and Qatar were also democracies including India and South Africa.

Likewise on a second amendment to remove references to freedom of expression. Russia and China were joined by 15 other countries including India, Kenya and South Africa.

"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," said Thomas Hughes, the executive director of Article 19, a charity focused on protecting freedom of expression. He added: "The resolution is a much-needed response to increased pressure on freedom of expression online in all parts of the world."

Among the key extracts in the resolutions are:

  • That people have the same rights online as offline, "in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one's choice."
  • That human rights violations enacted against people due to making their views known online are "condemned unequivocally," and states are held accountable for any such violations.
  • Any measures to "intentionally prevent or disrupt access" to the internet are also "condemned unequivocally," and all states should "refrain from and cease such measures."

In effect, that means that the expanding use of internet shutdowns by governments claiming national security issues or even, in the case of Iraq, to prevent exam cheating, will now go against formal UN policy. ®


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