Stephanie Borg Psaila   28 Sep 2011   Internet Governance

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It’s good to see Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue comment in person on his Report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; even more so to hear him address the concerns of sovereign states.

Whether its terrorism, child abuse, or any other grave threat, it is a state’s concern to want to tackle such a problem – a concern which Mr La Rue acknowledges as ‘absolutely legitimate’. The problem is when a state acts against these threats, in ways which are not defined by law.

Mr La Rue was participating in a workshop on the second day of the 6th Internet  Governance Forum, currently taking place in Nairobi. The workshop, ‘Freedom of Expression on the Net: Current threats to the Internet’s architecture that undermine citizens’ rights and the free flow of information’ (Workshop 205), was attended by in situ and remote participants from around the world.

Mr La Rue’s intervention was to reassure states that the whole point was not to restrict their need to act on their concerns. Rather, that their actions should be founded in law, should be proportionate, and should follow specific procedures. He added that any such restrictions should not be considered the rule, but only an exception. (Read more about the three-part cumulative test in his Report in paragraph 24.)

In recent months, we’ve seen a spat of actions by many states which have triggered human rights activities, civil society, and online users to protest. From an entire nation being disconnected from the Internet, to serious breaches of the freedom of expression, these acts have led to heightened discussions on the development of legal frameworks to protect the rights of Internet users. Mr La Rue’s report was well-timed: it was concluded at a time when the discussions needed a UN-backed opinion on the Internet from a human rights perspective.

Although today’s emphasis on states’ concerns did not really emerge in the May 2011 report, it still constitutes a good point of departure. It’s arguably difficult to tackle a problem if the concerns of all stakeholders – including states – are not known or acknowledged. It’s in this spirit of understanding that the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations should be viewed.

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