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IRIS 2012-2:1/3

Committee of Ministers

Continued Attention for Online Freedom of Expression, Assembly and Association

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Tarlach McGonagle

Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam

On 7 December 2011, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers (CM) adopted a Declaration on the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers. This follows the CM’s adoption in September 2011 of a similarly-titled Declaration on the protection of freedom of expression and information and freedom of assembly and association with regard to Internet domain names and name strings (see IRIS 2011-10/6).

The Declaration opens with an affirmation of the importance of the right to freedom of expression (including “its corollary, freedom of the media”) and of the right to freedom of assembly and association in democratic society (para. 1). These rights are guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11, respectively, of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Declaration stresses the importance of safeguarding these rights in an online environment due to the public’s increased reliance on “social networks, blogging websites and other means of mass communication” for informational, communicative, associative and other purposes (para. 2). It notes that “these platforms are becoming an integral part of the new media ecosystem” and adds that although they are privately operated, “they are a significant part of the public sphere through facilitating debate on issues of public interest; in some cases, they can fulfil, similar to traditional media, the role of a social ‘watchdog’ and have demonstrated their usefulness in bringing positive real-life change” (para. 2).

The Declaration then draws attention to, and briefly explains, the threats to online freedom of expression posed by political influence or pressure on new media actors (para. 3) and by “[d]istributed denial-of-service attacks against websites of independent media, human rights defenders, dissidents, whistleblowers and other new media actors” (para. 4).

In light of the instrumental role of privately-owned Internet platforms and online service providers in safeguarding online freedom of expression, assembly and association, as well as the aforementioned threats to the role of those actors, the Declaration seeks to take a stand on their behalf. It does so by insisting on the importance of Articles 10 and 11 ECHR, as a shield against “politically motivated pressure exerted on privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers, and of other attacks against websites of independent media, human rights defenders, dissidents, whistleblowers and new media actors” (para. 7).

References
Declaration by the Committee of Ministers on the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers, 7 December 2011 EN
 http://merlin.obs.coe.int/redirect.php?id=15643