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Internet freedom

July 10, 2012

The United Nations Human Rights Council has passed a resolution declaring Internet freedom a basic right. But Internet activists are questioning its effectiveness.

Image: fotolia/mezzotint

Many of those who would be happiest about a United Nations resolution protecting people's rights on the Internet remain unable to get online to read about it. They either continue to suffer under censorship, or are barred from accessing the Internet outright.

In its resolution, which was passed on July 5, the UN Human Rights Council said "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression."

China not on board

A total 71 countries voted in favor of the resolution.

It was passed by democratic model states like Sweden - which initiated the resolution - and even by a number of countries that have been accused of partially suppressing freedom of speech. They include Algeria, Azerbaijan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine.

UN headquarters in Geneva
The UN has thrown its weight behind Internet freedomImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

But China, Russia and India voted against. Some observers say their rejection of the resolution comes as no surprise.

Mathias von Hein, director of DW's Asian program, says he is skeptical about how much change the resolution will achieve.

"Of course, Chinese dissidents will turn to the UN resolution in the future in their never ending game of cat and mouse with authorities," says von Hein. "But the fact remains that people are arrested for expressing critical opinions on the Internet."

He cites the case of the Chinese author, Liu Xiaobo, as a well-known example of how little international declarations have achieved.

Despite being awarded a Nobel Prize, and numerous calls for his release, Liu Xiaobo remains imprisoned.

Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail after he participated in a civil rights manifesto, which was signed and posted on the Internet by him and other intellectuals. The official charge was "inciting subversion of state power."

Censorship and China

DW's Internet presence is blocked in China.

Censorship is part of daily life in the country and will remain so despite the UN resolution, says von Hein.

Reading for Liu Xiaobo in Berlin
Liu Xiaobo draws support from around the world - such as at readings like thisImage: Rebecca Roth

But von Hein says the Internet does still play a major role in the formation of a civil society in China. While microblogs are shut down nearly every day, new platforms continue to spring up.

German Net activist Markus Beckedahl says the UN resolution should have made it clearer that "every form of censorship is bad."

As a founding member of Die Digitale Gesellschaft ("Digital Society"), Beckedahl has mobilized support for civil rights issues on the Internet and lobbied against initiatives such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Beckedahl says there is too much room for interpretation in the UN resolution – in particular, in a distinction made indirectly between "good censorship" and "bad censorship."

In addition, the resolution has been slow to come.

"This declaration should have come 10 years ago," says Beckedahl.

Right to information

Net activist Mark Kaigwa
Net activist Mark Kaigwa is encouraged by the UN resolutionImage: DW

In Germany, computers were recently included on a list of items, which bailiffs are banned from taking because they are considered to be vital tools for accessing information. The country's Federal Constitutional Court says "information technology systems are of paramount importance to people's lives."

Television sets have long been on the list because they allow people "to participate in public life."

But this idea of social interaction and participation is increasingly taking place on the Internet.

In Africa, only about 13.5 percent of the population has Internet access – often due to technical reasons. So, how can the resolution help people there?

The resolution calls on "all states to promote and facilitate access to the Internet" by cooperating in the development of information and communication facilities.

For Mark Kaigwa, an Internet activist and business consultant, the UN has sent an important signal.

"It will still take some time before everyone on the African continent has the fundamental human right to inform themselves on the Internet," says Kaigwa.

Since 2000, Internet usage in Africa has increased by 3,000 percent. More than 700 million people in Africa have mobile phones and 140 million have Internet access.

This development, says Kaigwa, could give the UN resolution a further push.

Author: Sara Judith Hofmann / jrb
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany