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States must establish greater Internet access, say free expression rapporteurs

Four international bodies that have special mandates on free expression have issued a declaration calling for international organisations and nation states to respect freedom of expression on the Internet, report ARTICLE 19 and the Center for Law and Democracy, the groups that brought them together.

The four free expression special rapporteurs in the UN, Europe, the Americas and Africa declared that states are obliged to foster universal access to the Internet, including for the "billions [that] still lack access or have second class forms of access," such as the poor and those in isolated rural areas.

Equitable access to the Internet was given considerable emphasis in the declaration as being critically linked to the rights to education, health care and work, the right to assembly and association, and the right to free elections.

Meanwhile, cutting off access to the Internet for the public can never be justified, says the declaration. Denying access as punishment is extreme and must take into account the impact on the enjoyment of human rights, the rapporteurs say. Also, imposing registration requirements on service providers is not legitimate "unless they conform to the test for restrictions on freedom of expression under international law."

The rapporteurs recommend a tailored approach to dealing with illegal content, recognising that "no special content restrictions should be established for material disseminated over the Internet." The declaration equates the mandatory blocking of websites with banning newspapers or broadcasters, which can only be justified in accordance with international standards - such as protecting children from sexual abuse. Also, it emphasises that content filtering systems imposed by a government are a form of prior censorship and are not justifiable restrictions on freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 had previously raised concerns about a declaration on the Internet released on 27 May by the leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) nations at the Deauville Summit in France. The declaration on "Renewed Commitment for Freedom and Democracy" does not acknowledge that under international human rights law, restrictions on freedom of expression and the free flow of information - including via the Internet - should only be applied in exceptional and limited circumstances, reports ARTICLE 19. Specifically, this declaration only criticises "arbitrary or indiscriminate" censorship, which is weaker than international law and would permit many forms of censorship currently being carried out by countries such as Iran and China.

Read the four rapporteurs' joint declaration here.
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