United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Defending freedom of expression on the internet

Paris - Though the internet is enabling more individuals and communities than ever before to express their opinions and creativity, it is increasingly being subjected to restrictions ranging from financial, technical and language barriers to outright censorship.

How can human dignity, children's rights, privacy and national security be protected while preserving freedom of expression?

These issues will be debated at an International Symposium on "Freedom of Expression in the Information Society", November 15 and 16 at UNESCO Headquarters1. Organized by the French National Commission for UNESCO, it is the only event scheduled so far to tackle freedom of expression in the preparation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva, December 10-12, 2003 and Tunis in 2005)2. This issue is, at present, left out of the agenda of the Summit. The Symposium will enable experts, professionals, representatives of non-governmental organizations and governmental and regulatory agencies from all regions of the world to identify problems relating to freedom of expression on the internet and define basic principles and proposals to be submitted to the WSIS.

The Symposium will examine ways to guarantee respect and protection for fundamental freedoms and human rights, network security, and democratic values. Different approaches to these issues will be debated, allowing those in favour of protective measures and those who oppose any restrictions to voice their views.

"The Organization's Constitution places the free flow of ideas by word and image at the heart of UNESCO's mission," says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. "Freedom of expression remains as essential to development and democracy in the age of the internet as it ever was. We therefore view it as crucial that the issue be given its rightful place on the agenda of the World Summit on the Information Society. Restricting the debate about cyberspace to a discussion of technical questions cannot serve the interests of the vast majority of the world's citizenry to whom the internet holds the promise of more freedom, empowerment and development."

Freedom of expression on the internet poses a wide range of problems and different legal practices prevail in different parts of the world. Policies towards sites - notably those that spread messages of hate, or promote terrorism or crime, or those that represent a perceived threat to national security - vary from country to country. The following incomplete list of examples shows extreme disparities in attacks on the intangible principle of freedom of expression:

  • In Bahrain sites have been blocked by the authorities for serving as "forums for the dissemination of biased information, rumours and lies".
  • In Belarus, internet users must go through a single, state-owned, service provider (Belpak).
  • Burundi's National Communication Council bans websites from "posting documents or other statements by political organizations that disseminate hate or violence".
  • In Canada, Bill C-36, the Anti Terrorism Act, came into force in December 2001 reinforcing control of electronic communication.
  • In March 2002, China's Internet Association, the national body in charge of the internet, required webmasters and service providers to sign an agreement whereby they undertake not to produce or disseminate information that is "damaging to national security and stability."
  • In its Directive of May 30, 2002, the European Parliament adopted a Convention on Cybercrime which, inter alia, requires member states to pass laws obliging internet access providers and telephone operators to keep full records of all communications.
  • In May 2000, Yahoo was ordered by a court in France to stop making sites auctioning Nazi memorabilia available to French websurfers, as the sale of such objects is illegal in the country. This has led Yahoo to filter sites made available to those using its search engine from French territory. In some countries such limitations are seen as necessary to protect the rights of the public while in others they are viewed as limiting citizens' access to information.
  • On October 10, 2002, Vietnam issued new regulations for people publishing information on the internet, including the need to first obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture and Information, and to clearly identify on each Web site all the people who contributed material.
  • In the wake of the USA Patriot Act (adopted in October 2001), many service providers in the United States have installed electronic monitoring software such as Carnivore. The powers of government to tap electronic communications has been increased3.

    Access can also be restricted by technical or infrastructural obstacles which thus constitute limitations to freedom of expression. UNESCO believes that the information and communication technologies should be made available to all:

  • Inadequate infrastructure in some regions makes it difficult, almost impossible, for large populations to benefit from the potential of the information and communication technologies. Thus, 1,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to just 0.2 computers connected to the Web, as opposed to 120 connected computers per 1,000 inhabitants in the wealthiest OECD countries4.
  • Some languages are barely present on the internet making it difficult for people of some cultures to benefit from the information that is available. Thus, English is estimated to account for 52% of content on the world wide web; German 6.97%; Spanish 5.48%; French, 4.43%; Italian 3.06%; Portuguese 2.70%; Korean, Dutch, Russian and the four Scandinavian languages total between 8 and 10%.5

    "The problem is not so much to define values of human dignity and security which we can all agree about, but to reach agreement on how they should be defended," explains Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information. "Attempts to develop international standards for the web," he adds, "even if they stem from the worthy desire to protect human dignity and reinforce security, will open the door to a wide range of interpretations and implementation practices that can have weighty consequences, and possibly restrict, freedom of expression."


    1 The Symposium is organized by the French National Commission for UNESCO with the support of the French Agence Intergouvernementale de la Francophonie, the Principality of Monaco, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Ministry of Culture and Communication and with the participation of the French association Internet Rights Forum.

    The Symposium will feature three roundtables:
    1. Does cyberspace offer new opportunities (Friday November 15, 11 a.m.). Moderator: Eric Baptiste, President of the Information and Communication Committee, French National Commission for UNESCO
    · Promotion and exercise of the right to freedom of expression at the global scale.
    · Development of participative democracy and world civil society.
    · Expression of pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity and creativity.

    2. Are there obstacles to be overcome? (November 15, 3 p.m.) Moderator: Dominique Gerbaut, of the French NGO Reporters sans frontières and editor in chief of French daily La Croix.
    · What are the obstacles, legal, technological and otherwise of freedom of expression in cyberspace?
    · What are the elements - economic, technical, linguistic and otherwise - conditioning the full exercise of this right in cyberspace?

    3. Is the definition of standards necessary? (November 16, 10 a.m.) Moderator: Lionel Thoumyre, Technical Advisor of the Internet Rights Forum
    · Should new ethical, legal and technical standards be defined, in cyberspace, to guarantee the preservation of freedom of expression and the protection of human rights? If so,what should these standards be, who should define them and at what level?
    · What kind of integrated system of cooperation could be set between the different parties concerned and between states in a space with no boundaries?

    2 WSIS is organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with the participation of other United Nations agencies, including UNESCO.

    3 For more information on such practices: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/google/ http://www.foruminternet.org/en/forums/descr.php?f=3

    4 Human Development Report 2002, United Nations Development Programme

    5 According to a study by the non-governmental organization FUNREDES (see http://funredes.org/LC/english/L5/L5overview.html)


    The Symposium will take place at UNESCO Headquarters, Room XI


    Press accreditation is requested and can be obtained from UNESCO Press Service
    Tel: (+33) (0)1 45 68 17 48
    Fax: (+33) (0)1 45 68 56 52

    Contacts: Roni Amelan
    UNESCO Bureau of Public Information
    Tel: (+33) (0)1 45 68 16 50
    E-mail: r.amelan@unesco.org

    Catherine Souyri, French National Commission for UNESCO
    Tel:(+33)(0)1 53 69 37 35
    E-mail: catherine.souyri@diplomatie.fr

    Author(s) UNESCOPRESS
    Source Press Release No.2002-91
    Website 1 (URL) Web: more information about the Symposium
    Publication Date 13 Nov 2002
    © UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 7623