UN: Online expression == offline expression. Is that really a good idea?

I’m conflicted by the Sweden-initiated resolution (PDF, HTML) on “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, adopted in a consensus by the UN Human Rights Council on July 5, and subsequently portrayed in a NYT op-ed as a “victory for the Internet” by Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt.

The main thrust of the resolution lies in its first article (the others and the preamble are more aspirational in nature):

The Human Rights Council, […]

1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

My ambivalence stems from this: The flip side to affirming the equivalence of online and offline rights is that it also affirms the equivalence of the limitations on those rights, as currently interpreted and implemented by national governments.

In practice, many countries fall far short of allowing their citizens the full exercise of their (offline) right to free expression as enumerated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related texts. This shortfall is justified on the basis of national security concerns or cultural differences such as religious or national sensitivities or even especially draconian libel laws.

With this new resolution, such rationalizations can now be transposed wholesale into arguments for a likewise censoring of the Internet. Instead of preserving the freedom of the Internet, it could give authoritarians further legal cover to constrain it, allowing the entrenched justifications from meatspace to bleed into cyberspace.

This perspective on the resolution perhaps better explains why so many countries with a strict censorship regime were willing to adopt it. Turkey, with its persecution of journalists and writers and its periodic blocking of websites for alleged offenses against Ataturk, is even one of the seven co-sponsors of the resolution.

Why lament an explicit declaration of the equivalence of the offline with the online? Because the Internet has been and still is a disruptive force in favor of free expression, especially in places like Iran, Belarus and China, despite increasing technical and legal attempts to “nationalize” it, with varying degrees of success.

Such nationalization projects, of which the Great Chinese Firewall is the most advanced, aim to give authoritarian regimes renewed monopoly control over the flow of information among citizens — a monopoly once enjoyed in the offline world, but lost when the Internet came calling. This new resolution gives authoritarian regimes legal permission to bring such offline controls online.

In a best-case scenario, the resolution is ineffectual; even Cuba and China have signed on (with reservations). In the worst case, dubious justifications for offline controls on free expression made within the existing human rights frameworks will now be applied online. Much better (and therefore unlikely to succeed) would have been a resolution which:

1. Affirms that the same rights that people have online must also be protected offline, …

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