As the Internet has emerged and evolved to become a critical part of communications and commerce activity for humans around the globe, governments have had to play catch-up in determining how to respond to the medium’s impact on their respective societies. That response runs the philosophical spectrum from a commitment to openness to limiting access to information that might threaten power structures. At any given time, in any given country it is a moving target.
The United Nations Human Rights Council last week firmed the ground somewhat, while simultaneously turning the tables. The 47-member body approved a resolution extending the freedom of expression to online forums, thereby staking its position that citizens the world over have a basic human right to say what they care to on the Internet. That is an important recognition of a critical privilege – one that can trigger fundamental shifts in societies.
The council’s members were ultimately unanimous in supporting the resolution, but differed in their reasoning. China based its blessing on the impact that free expression has on the business sector, recognizing the economic growth that the Internet makes possible. By that rationale, it was able to reconcile its notorious opposition to free access to information: “We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” China’s envoy Xia Jingge said in a Reuters story. “As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, violence, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of society and the public.”
The interconnection is undeniable, though, and one that Tunisia’s representative recognized as being instrumental to that country’s revolution that began in spring 2011.
It is important to note that the resolution addresses people’s right to express what they will on the Internet, but does not get at the question of their right to consume all the information they seek. That difference is fundamental, and one not likely to be resolved any time soon. There are technical access issues that challenge developing nations’ abilities to connect with information on the Web, and there are cultural, political and economic issues that demark differing levels of access among countries. Taken together, these factors will likely keep a U.N. resolution on humans’ right to information from appearing on near-term agendas. Nevertheless, supporting and promoting a right to expression is an important step that sets the stage for future conversation. As U.S. Ambassador Eileen Donahue said, “The reason that the resolution outcome today was so important is that it almost established the human rights principles as the foundation for all other conversations in international fora on the Internet.”
That the resolution ultimately passed unanimously – after apprehensive countries including China, Cuba and India aired their concerns – is even more telling: Regardless of the reasoning, 47 countries believe their citizens should have the right to speak their minds in a globally interconnected and instantaneous venue. That is a statement of profound significance.