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Materials on "Freedom of Expression Governance"

Core Questions

Freedom of expression is the key enabling right of the information society. ts relevance for the realization of other rights on the internet cannot be overestimated. The European Court of Human Rights has developed a substantial and strong jurisprudence on the contours of freedom of expression online. Current challenges to freedom of expression lie in the increased prevalence of online hate speech, the privatization of online spaces, the monopolization of online services, and political and legal fragmentation tendencies on the internet Internet intermediaries play a key role in providing (not without self-interest) forums for the exercise of freedom of expression. Existing regimes of liability exemptions for third party content contribute to a dynamic marketplace of ideas, but some states misuse intermediaries to police the internet. Coupled with the algorithmic selection of online content, freedom of expression online is under pressure, but strong commitments by states and standard-setting activities by international organizations are evidence of the normative influence of freedom of expression online as a catalyst for all other rights and freedoms (Source: Matthias C. Kettemann and Wolfgang Benedek, Freedom of Expression Online, in Mart Susi (ed.), Human Rights, Digital Society and the Law: A Research Companion (Routledge 2019).



„We need to fight Digital Violence. Digital violence is a form of discrimination that aims at excluding people through sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or other inhuman hate speech. It is the violent continuation of discrimination. Digital violence undermines freedom of expression and poses a threat to democracy. It includes identity theft, rumours and false allegations, intimidation/pressing, insult, threat, stalking, defamation/ obeyance, doxing, swatting and threats of rape. Often feminist positions are tackled by digital violence, this is what we call “silencing”. There are well-organized communities built upon anti-feminism in the area of gaming, in the context of Reddit's nerd supremacy, in right-wing extremist to right-wing populist milieus, and even in Incel forums.” (Read more)

Matthias C. Kettemann, Leibniz Institute for Media Research, Hamburg, and Wolfgang Benedek (University of Graz)

" The internet has become a vital medium of communication that mediates much of our lived experience and through which individuals exercise their human rights, especially through the enabling right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kind, regardless of frontiers." (Source: Matthias C. Kettemann and Wolfgang Benedek, Freedom of Expression Online, in Mart Susi (ed.), Human Rights, Digital Society and the Law: A Research Companion (Routledge 2019).

"Protecting the internet in both its dimensions – kinetic and non-kinetic, including a protective normative framework – lies in the common interest of all states. Its functioning is  precondition for the exercise of freedom of expression, the key enabling right of the information society, by any media of one’s choice and independent of borders." (Source: Matthias C. Kettemann and Wolfgang Benedek, Freedom of Expression Online, in Mart Susi (ed.), Human Rights, Digital Society and the Law: A Research Companion (Routledge 2019).

"States have a duty to protect their citizens with regard to the internet (and regarding their online activities, including the exercise of freedom of expression). Companies, too, have a corporate social responsibility to respect human rights within their sphere of influence, which – on the internet – is growing rapidly as the majority of relevant communicative acts takes place in private spaces. The special role of intermediaries is another challenge for regulating the internet. As the majority of online spaces lies in private hands, it is private law that prima facie frames many norm conflicts online. When states react belatedly through laws or judgments, these may lead to over-blocking or legal conflicts between competing jurisdictions.   This is why states, offline just as online, have the negative obligation to refrain from violating the right to freedom of expression and other human rights in the digital environment, and the positive obligation to protect human rights and to create an enabling and safe environment for everyone. Due to the horizontal effects of human rights, the positive obligation to protect includes a duty for states to protect individuals from actions of private parties by making intermediaries comply with relevant legal and regulatory frameworks." (Source: Matthias C. Kettemann and Wolfgang Benedek, Freedom of Expression Online, in Mart Susi (ed.), Human Rights, Digital Society and the Law: A Research Companion (Routledge 2019).

"The challenges of algorithmic decision-making illustrates well the challenges of technological progress for online expression, but just as well the responsive normativity of international institutions and human rights standard-setters. In all regulator endeavours, we need to keep in mind that law has to be prioritized over code,  and human agency over algorithmic decision-making. The ultimate goal of the order of freedom of expression online, just as of any other social order (law being one), is the protection of human beings and human agency and self-actualization. Agency is realized and self-actualization takes places, under the conditions of today’s technological modernity, to a non-insubstantial part on the internet. The protective ambit of freedom of expression must reflect this." (Source: Matthias C. Kettemann and Wolfgang Benedek, Freedom of Expression Online, in Mart Susi (ed.), Human Rights, Digital Society and the Law: A Research Companion (Routledge 2019).

Workshops at IGF 2019


Workshops at Youth IGF Summit 2019

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Media Reports

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Wednesday, Nov 27

An Intercontinental Perspective on Hate Speech. How governments and experts struggle to find a joint response

By Veronica Sirianni, HMKW, University of Applied Sciences, Berlin

On day two of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Berlin, a particular focus has been given to promoting democratic values and freedom of expression online.

In one of the main sessions, high profile panelists from all around the world gather to share their different approaches to addressing terrorist and violent extremist content (TVEC). While there is agreement regarding the Internet as being a double-edged sword promoting democracy and free speech and at the same time fostering threats, a joint response has yet to be found, especially regarding social networks.

“We are working on a difficult, unchartable territory,” declares Paul Ash, Director of the National Security Policy Directorate of New Zealand, expressing his concerns regarding the urgent need for regulation - in particular after the Christchurch terrorist massacre has been live-streamed.

The panelists agree that it has become very difficult to draw a clear line between freedom of expression and hate speech. From a Korean perspective, Professor Kyung Sin Park from Korea University Law School, echoes the UN definition of hate speech as advocacy of discrimination and hostility, but points out that a clear and multilaterally accepted definition of “hostility” and “discrimination” is still missing.

“Hate speech is a wider expression”, according to Gert Billen, State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection, explaining that it is not illegal to hate someone, but that there are legal boundaries to expressing hate.

However, he also points out that “there is a lot of hate speech which is legal” and that a properly functioning social network complaint system does not exist. Thus governments may be in a position to force social networks into deleting content which violates German and European criminal laws, but “normal citizens’ complaints receive nearly no reaction.”

In the U.S., the First Amendment protects citizens' basic rights to freedom such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and association. However, when it comes to freedom of speech, the US government finds it very difficult to determine which expressions are to be protected under the First Amendment and which ones are to be excluded without undermining one of the basic human rights, freedom of speech. So when it comes to online hate speech - in particular in social networks - the lines are blurred.

“We have tried hard to focus not only on short-term removals of content but on building long term resilience in the Internet,” says Dr. Sharri Clark, Senior Advisor for Cyber and Countering Violent Extremism from the US Department of State. Her agency’s work is based on voluntary collaboration with tech companies and focused on preventing the exploitation of Internet platforms for harmful purposes. And yet, hate speech and disinformation are prevalent on American owned platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Also, as Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Senior Big Data researcher from LIRNEasia in Sri Lanka, points out “hate speech is not a static thing... it is not that simple to imagine that any company can press a big red button and wipe out harmful content online”.

Therefore, as social networks are directly impacting democracy and the way the world is perceived, a multilateral intercontinental approach to hate speech is imperative - if the mission is to keep the Internet a diverse and inclusive place for everyone.

Tuesday, Nov 26

Monitoring Internet Freedom in Russia - A conversation with human rights activist Leonid Volkov

By Ian Marsden, HMKW, University of Applied Sciences, Berlin

Leonid Volkov is a Russian political activist and the founder of Internet Protection Society (IPS), an NGO he set up to monitor Internet freedom in Russia and push back against potential state repression.

Since it was founded in 2017, he has been arrested seven times and spent more than 200 days in prison. Most of these arrests have been as a result of oragnizing and attending protests in support of human rights and internet freedom which he says have usually been illegal. “Constitutionally, protests are allowed to take place but the authorities put so many administrative barriers in their way that protests are rarely officially permitted, hence when they do go ahead they result in arrests”, he explains.

Leonid works with seven colleagues at IPS which is funded mainly by crowdfunding within Russia together with some support from external EU organisations to enable them to attend conferences such as IGF 2019 currently taking place in Berlin. “We advocate and promote the ideals and values of a free and self-regulating Internet”, he says. To that end IPS organizes mass events and political campaigns.

The non-profit is basically active in three areas. For one, they produce statistics related to connectivity, showing the level of activity between Russian and non-Russian autonomous systems. In other words, connections between computers located within and computers located outside of Russia. Over the past four years, there have been regular “outages” when connectivity has dropped dramatically. But Leonid admits that these drops may be more likely due to technical issues than actual government interference.

More interesting however is IPS’ Monthly Internet Freedom Index which monitors over-regulation and limitation on human rights by the Russian state and the extent to which international companies such as Google and Facebook comply with state regulatory demands. According to Leonid “when the big companies do resist plans for new regulation, it’s usually for their own convenience to allow their businesses to expand without further regulation and not out of consideration for internet freedom.”

The Monthly Internet Freedom Index, which is calculated on the basis of independent expert opinions, has been showing a steady steep decline in confidence since 2016. It reflects that violations of the rights of users have undermined the ability of Russians to safely access a free network environment. Leonid explains that there are nearly 1000 cases on their database of people being arrested in Russia for publishing political information on the Internet - IPS’s third area of activity.

The cases are found on their Internet Repression Map, which is intended to draw attention to the prosecution of Internet users in Russia. “The Internet today is on the frontline in the confrontation between common sense and the repressive state machine”, Leonid says. So far, it seems the repressive machine is winning. #digitalfreedom #humanrights #russia

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