Freedom of Expression on the Net: Current Threats to the Internet’s Architecture That Undermine Citizens’ Rights and the Free Flow of Information Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Technology and Society at Getulio Vargas Foundation

28 September 2011 - A Workshop on Security in Nairobi, Kenya


Citizens’ right to seek, receive and impart information is enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Likewise, the Tunis Agenda addresses these rights in the context of the Information Society, reaffirming in item 42 the “commitment to the freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information, in particular, for the creation, accumulation and dissemination of knowledge.”

In spite of the fact that freedom of expression relies on the free flow of information. a number of current proposals in national and regional venues would interfere with the Internet’s end-to-end architecture and undermine citizens’ rights of freedom of expression and privacy. To address perceived widespread IP infringement and the transmission of other illegal information (such as images of child exploitation, hate speech and copyright infringement), several governments are proposing requirements on Internet intermediaries to filter, block or remove online content, to deactivate Internet users’ accounts and to hand over their subscribers’ information, and more recently, to seize or block access to domains, to prevent Internet users around the world from accessing content posted on those websites. These have all proved highly controversial because of their detrimental impact on citizens’ freedom of expression and access to knowledge, and the damage that they would do to the Internet’s global architecture.

In the U.S., recent discussion has focused on the seizure of website domains under existing laws, and the proposal for DNS services to not respond accurately to requests for particular websites under the 2010 draft Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). In the UK, the Digital Economy Act’s website blocking provisions have recently been challenged in court. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that an injunction issued to an ISP to undertake filtering for potential copyright infringement was not proportional and violated fundamental human rights. And the European Commission is currently holding a consultation on how to balance citizens’ right to privacy and personal data, with IP rightsholders’ need to obtain information for enforcement of their private rights. In Latin America, Brazil is holding a public consultation to establish ISPs liability in balance with internet user’s rights, Chile has also made some progresses, but, as a whole, a proper approach to deal with this topic is still undefined in the region.

These developments, and other efforts to have Internet intermediaries police content on their networks and platforms, pose serious threats to citizens’ rights of privacy and freedom of expression and will cause significant collateral damage to key elements of internet architecture that help facilitate free expression, such as openness, universality and interconnectedness of networks. This leads us to the question: in this context, is the global free flow of information in a borderless Internet really sustainable?

Intervening in the Internet architecture to block access to particular content will have a lasting negative impact on access to knowledge and freedom of expression, and will infringe essential principles for good Internet governance. In order to address this issue and, highlight the technical and public policy concerns with these proposals for national and international policymakers and global civil society, this workshop will gather speakers with different views on the topic, representing all affected stakeholder groups: representatives from governments, the content industry, the technical community, academia and civil society representatives from both developed and developing countries. Active moderation will foster debate amongst those in Kenya, and encourage remote interventions.