GENEVA (16 June 2016) – “Private companies make decisions that profoundly impact digital expression and freedom on the internet,” said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, who is launching this week a major project to examine the human rights responsibilities of private businesses in a digital age.

“It is all too common for private companies to censor, conduct surveillance, or enforce other restrictions on freedom of expression, often under pressure from governments, but sometimes on their own initiative,” Mr. Kaye stressed in his latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council, which lays the ground for the multi-year study on private sector duties to ensure freedom online. “Given their central role, what responsibilities do private companies have to promote freedom of expression or resist government demands?”

“From content takedowns to service shutdowns, from the regulation of broadly undefined concepts like extremism and hate speech to the enforcement of so-called community standards, private actors require practical guidance on how human rights standards apply to their roles as gatekeepers and facilitators of expression,” he noted.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s new report offers a groundbreaking overview of the human rights issues and concerns that private companies in digital space face today, whether because of State regulation and pressure or business decisions that affect individual users. It details the myriad ways in which the private sector implicates freedom of expression, highlighting the actors involved and the regulatory practices that deserve study.

“The minimum requirements of human rights law are clear. States must not force companies to take steps that unnecessarily or disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression,” Mr. Kaye noted. “Any measures to censor content or conduct surveillance must, at the very least, be based on validly enacted law, necessary to achieve legitimate objectives, and subject to external and independent oversight.”

“At the same time, companies should address their own policies that risk interfering with the freedom of expression,” he said. “At an absolute minimum, they should ensure the greatest possible transparency concerning policies, standards and actions that implicate individual users.”

Mr. Kaye will present his next study on private sector responsibilities in the digital world to the Human Rights Council in 2017. At that time he will examine norms governing telecommunications companies and internet service providers, which increasingly face demands to shut down during periods of protest and elections.

The Special Rapporteur will also prepare thematic studies on topics such as content restrictions imposed by private actors and governments, the liability of intermediaries for third-party expression, the role of the surveillance industry, the role of private and public actors in areas of digital security, global internet governance, and efforts to expand access to the internet.

The project will involve international experts and visits to corporate and government actors worldwide.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full report:

UN expert launches initiative on private sector’s responsibility to ensure freedom online