In his report to the Human Rights Council last June, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression announced that he will be conducting a multi-year examination of freedom of expression and the private sector in the digital age. The project will start at the basic level of the digital expression infrastructure – the private entities that enable or facilitate access to telecommunications and Internet service.

Objectives and Scope

In his report, the Special Rapporteur concluded that the trend of State pressure on Telecommunications and Internet Service Providers (“Telcos” and “ISPs”) to restrict freedom of opinion and expression “requires further documentation and scrutiny.” Future work will not only examine content regulation and surveillance laws, but also restrictions established through extralegal measures.

The Special Rapporteur will also explore “the responsibilities of companies to respond to such measures in a way that respects rights, mitigates harm and provides avenues for redress where abuses occur.” Additionally, corporate initiatives and practices that affect the right to seek, receive and impart information – such as decisions concerning network neutrality – will be examined.

While this phase of the project is focused on Telcos and ISPs, the Special Rapporteur may also consider the pressures on and responsibilities of business enterprises that provide network components and related technical support. These entities may include Network Equipment Providers (which supply network hardware and equipment like routers and switches), Submarine Cable Providers (which lay and maintain cables that carry digital data), and Internet Exchange Points (which facilitate the exchange of Internet traffic between multiple ISPs). The Special Rapporteur may also examine the role of entities which develop technical standards and protocols that govern the functioning and interoperability of telecommunications and Internet networks.

Work Plan and Planned Activities  

In his June 2017 report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur will detail his findings and provide recommendations based on international standards concerning the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

For this study, the Special Rapporteur has, along with this concept note, prepared questionnaires for States and business enterprises, and a call for submissions from NGOs and other stakeholders.

The Special Rapporteur also plans to organize expert consultations in October and December 2016 (date and location TBD), aiming for globally representative input and a diverse range of stakeholders, including regulators, private actors, civil society, and the technical community.

Additionally, the Special Rapporteur will identify and engage directly with a small number of relevant business enterprises to deepen his understanding of legal and technical issues from their perspective.

Finally, the Special Rapporteur will continue to examine alleged violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the Telecommunications and Internet Access sector through his regular communications with States and other entities.