Freedom of Expression





the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the IACHR-OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression


Washington, D.C., January 20, 2012—The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Catalina Botero Marino, and the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, today called on the United States to be vigorous in protecting freedom of speech on the Internet. The Special Rapporteurs recalled that legislation regulating the Internet should take into account the special characteristics of the Internet as a unique and transformative tool that enables billions of individuals to exercise their right to freedom of thought and expression as well as a range of other human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs have taken particular note of the discussions surrounding two Internet piracy bills currently pending in the United States Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act. While these bills pursue a legitimate objective in seeking to protect intellectual property rights, serious concerns have been raised regarding their impact on freedom of expression. In particular, versions of the draft legislation have the potential to silence a good deal of entirely lawful speech, for example by creating an extrajudicial ‘notice-and-termination’ procedure, by requiring websites to police their user-generated content for copyright infringement, and by allowing for an entire website to be targeted if even a small portion of its content is deemed to infringe. The Special Rapporteurs note with satisfaction that in recent days, certain Congressional leaders stated their intention to suspend debate on SOPA in order to pursue further discussion and consensus, while the Obama Administration announced that it "will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

In June 2011, the UN and IACHR Special Rapporteurs joined with their fellow special mandate holders from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to issue a Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet. This Joint Declaration states that while freedom of expression, including on the Internet, is not absolute, tailored approaches must be developed that respond to illegal content while recognizing the Internet’s unique characteristics and its ability to deliver positive freedom of expression outcomes. The Declaration states that intermediaries should not be required to monitor user-generated content, and stresses the need to protect them from liability unless they specifically intervene in content or disobey a court order to remove such content. The Declaration further states that jurisdiction in legal cases relating to Internet content should be restricted to States to which those cases have a real and substantial connection.

In addition, all restrictions on freedom of expression, including those that affect speech on the Internet, should be clearly and precisely established by law, proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued, and based on a judicial determination in adversarial proceedings. In this regard, legislation regulating the Internet should not contain vague and sweeping definitions or disproportionately affect legitimate websites and services. 

The UN and IACHR Special Rapporteurs call on the United States to uphold international free speech norms, including those reflected in the aforementioned Joint Declaration, which seeks to promote universal access to the Internet while preserving its role as a revolutionary medium for participatory information sharing and collaboration in the creation of content. In considering both domestic legislation and international treaties such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, States should recall that while freedom of expression may be limited in the pursuit of legitimate objectives such as the prevention of crime or the protection of the rights of others, such limitations should be narrowly tailored and interfere to the least extent possible with the right to freedom of expression. Any measure that affects speech on the Internet should be specifically designed to preserve the Internet’s unique capacity to promote freedom of expression by facilitating the free exchange of information and ideas instantaneously and inexpensively regardless of frontiers.