GENEVA (12 June 2017) – Urgent action is needed to safeguard people’s online rights in the face of unprecedented and worsening State clampdowns, a United Nations human rights expert has warned in a new report.

Governments and companies should act now to tackle major threats such as the deliberate shutdown of internet access, censorship and data collection, said David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as he presented his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“States are denying internet and telecommunications access in blunt and unprecedented ways,” Mr. Kaye said.

“They are shutting down – or demanding that third parties shut down – services, including in times of public protest and mass dissent. Many are demanding that service providers retain and share user data. Still others are rolling back much-needed protections for net neutrality,” he noted.

Mr. Kaye added: “In short, State censorship and surveillance targeting the foundations of the internet and telecommunications infrastructure often have a crippling effect on everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information.”

The report finds that governments are increasingly relying on telecommunications companies, internet service providers, and other parties to suppress and monitor expression online.

But it also warns that the industry is contributing of its own accord to restricting freedom of expression, for example by interfering with net neutrality.

“Private sector firms are critical to the future of freedom of expression, as providers of internet and telecommunications access to hundreds of millions of people worldwide,” said the UN expert.

“Whether under protest, in silent acquiescence, or as willing participants, the private sector has often facilitated some of the most troubling trends in online censorship and surveillance,” he pointed out.

“States must take steps to resist requests or demands that lead to unlawful, unnecessary, or disproportionate interference with digital access,” the human rights expert stressed.

In an increasingly hostile environment for individual users and groups, the report outlines a series of steps that the digital access industry can take to identify, prevent, and mitigate risks to freedom of expression and related human rights.

“As suppliers of a service which should be provided for the public good, digital access firms have a special responsibility to safeguard the freedom of expression of millions of internet users worldwide,” Mr. Kay said.

“Basic steps such as due diligence, responsible design choices and transparency go a long way in protecting the rights and safety of users.”

The report follows a year of study and consultation with governments, civil society, academics and technical experts worldwide. It is part of a series of studies conducted by the Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights Council that includes work on encryption and anonymity and freedom of expression on the internet.

Mr. Kaye will soon be inviting submissions for forthcoming studies on the regulation of expression on private internet platforms, especially social media networks and search engines.

UN expert demands urgent boost for online rights amid rampant State censorship