The UN Would Really Appreciate It if Countries Stopped Turning Off the Internet

The latest UN internet resolution makes internet access and freedom of expression online a human right, and a lot of countries aren’t happy about it.

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Jul 3 2016, 9:00pm

Image: Flickr/sanjitbakshi.

On Friday the United Nations' Human Rights Council passed a resolution which brings offline human rights online by condemning the practice of internet censorship in all its forms.

Titled 'The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,' the resolution promotes an open and free internet by explicitly stating that freedom of expression is a universal right not bound by borders or the type of medium used for expression, as well as unequivocally condemning state actions against dissident bloggers and any efforts to prevent or disrupt access to the internet.

The resolution follows on the heels of three recent UN resolutions pertaining to the internet: the 2012 and 2014 resolutions guaranteeing freedom of speech online, and the 2015 resolution affirming encryption and anonymity online as basic human rights.

According to Article 19, a free speech organization and one of the most vocal advocates of the latest resolution, the charter was motivated by the same spirit underlying the previous internet resolutions, namely the belief that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online." The resolution borrows a lot of language from the 2012 and 2014 resolutions, but the new charter provides a more robust treatment of the issue of online freedom of expression.

The resolution was a joint initiative led by the United States, Sweden, Nigeria, Turkey, Brazil, and Tunisia, and is a response to the increasing online censorship by countries which have shut down access to the parts and/or all of the internet, such as Turkey, Brazil, and Tunisia.

The reasons cited for these internet blackouts usually have to do with national security even though—despite what Donald Trump says—killing the internet doesn't help in times of conflict. Sometimes the censorship has more bizarre justifications however, like when Iraq shut down its internet to prevent cheating on exams in May.

Other countries, particularly China, have a more blatant and sustained policy of internet censorship, which would now constitute a human rights violation. Same goes for countries like Russia and Venezuela, which have made it clear on several occasions that expressions of political dissent online will not be tolerated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was China, Russia, India and 12 other countries which aren't exactly known for being champions of free speech which led the crusade against the UN's latest internet resolution. These countries put forth four amendments to the language of the resolution (all of which were tabled, but never adopted), specifically looking to cut out language such as: "regardless of frontiers," "through any media of one's choice," and "human rights based approach."

With the exception of South Africa and Bolivia, all of the countries seeking to amend or veto the resolution have totally or partially censored the internet in the last five years.

The resolution was originally scheduled for a vote on Thursday, but the vote had to be delayed until Friday after the discussion of the bill's language became heated. Article 19, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a number of other internet rights groups are generally pleased with the resolution, but still want to see stronger and more detailed language in future charters.

"While the resolution articulates strong human rights standards, the global situation for freedom of expression online demands more specific and detailed commitment from states," said Thomas Hughes, the executive director of Article 19.

"We are disappointed that democracies like South Africa, Indonesia, and India voted in favour of…hostile amendments to weaken protections for freedom of expression online, [but] governments must now act on the international commitments in this resolution to protect freedom of expression and other human rights online, at all times.