Should Internet access and online freedom of expression be considered basic human rights? According to the United Nations, the answer is yes.
On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution that “affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
The landmark resolution comes fresh in the wake of the Arab Spring, during which social media and global connectivity played a huge role in rebel uprisings. Now concerned about maintaining that free flow of information across the Web, the Council met to discuss the ever-evolving Internet and its role among citizens across the globe.
All 47 members of the Human Rights Council agreed upon the right to freedom of expression online, including censorship-prone countries like Cuba and China, whose frequent blocking of websites containing politically sensitive terms is often referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.”
So how will the decision change Internet use in places with repressive regimes? According to the New York Times, most of the responsibility will now fall on the technology companies whose tools are used to monitor and restrict other countries’ citizens on the Internet.
Somini Sengupta writes:
China’s firewall uses technology from Cisco, for instance. American law-enforcement agencies routinely seek information from Internet companies; Twitter is among a handful of companies that insists on informing users when their data is sought, as it did with supporters of WikiLeaks and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
So will technology firms put freedom of expression before their bottom lines? Perhaps only time, and consumer response to the companies’ decisions, will tell.
Since the resolution passed on Thursday is not binding, the decision could be most useful for public shaming.
“That even China, despite the obvious hypocrisy, felt compelled to sign on shows it isn’t comfortable publicly owning up to the Internet censorship regime that it tries to maintain,” Ken Roth, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.