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Unlike any other medium, the internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. Unlike any other technological development, it has created an interactive form of communication, which not only allows you to send information in one direction, but also to send information in many directions and receive an immediate response. The internet vastly increases the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, including access to information, which facilitates the exercise of other human rights, such as the right to education and research, the right to freedom of association and assembly, and the right to development and to protect the environment. The internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole; but it is especially an instrument that strengthens democracy by facilitating citizen participation and transparency. The internet is a “plaza pública” – a public place where we can all participate.  

The past year has been a difficult time globally: whether the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, unsteady global markets, post-election riots in Nigeria, civil war in Libya and a military clampdown in Syria. But there have been positive, and equally challenging, developments in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Throughout the year people around the world have increasingly used the internet to build support for human rights and social movements. This edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) offers timely commentary on the future of the internet as an open and shared platform that everyone has the right to access – to access content and to have access to connectivity and infrastructure.  

Through the lens of freedom of expression, freedom of association and democracy, the thematic reports included here go to the heart of the debates that will shape the future of the internet and its impact on human rights. They offer, amongst other things, an analysis of how human rights is framed in the context of the internet, the progressive use of criminal law to intimidate or censor the use of the internet, the difficult role of intermediaries facing increasing pressure to control content, and the importance of the internet to workers in the support of global rights in the workplace. Some call for a change of perspective, as in the report on cyber security, where the necessity of civil society developing a security advocacy strategy for the internet is argued. Without it, the levels of systems and controls, whether emanating from government or military superpowers, threaten to overwhelm what has over the years become the vanguard of freedom of expression and offered new forms of free association between people across the globe. 

Many of these issues are pulled sharply into focus at the country level in the country reports that follow the thematic considerations. Each of these country reports takes a particular “story” or event that illustrates the role of the internet in social rights and civil resistance – whether positive or negative, or both. Amongst other things, they document torture in Indonesia, candlelight vigils in South Korea, internet activism against forgetting human rights atrocities in Peru, and the rights of prisoners accessing the internet in Argentina. While the function and role of the internet in society remains debated, and necessarily so, in many contexts these stories show that to limit it unfairly will have a harmful impact on the rights of people. These stories show that the internet has become pivotal in actions aimed at the protection of human rights.

GISWatch makes a valuable contribution to dialogue on freedom of expression, freedom of association and democratisation and seeks to inspire and support collaborative approaches.

Frank La Rue
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression