IACHR Notes Inflection Point for Freedom of Expression on the Internet, Calls for Dialogue in the Region

February 5, 2021

Washington D.C. - The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression reflect on the robust discussions of recent weeks that have raised important concerns about guaranteeing freedom of expression on the internet. In particular, they acknowledge that the hemisphere is at an inflection point characterized by the widespread erosion of public debate where democratic States face the potential spillover of online violence into physical spaces, with a certain capacity for harm; attempts to control the public discourse through disinformation and misinformation; and compatibility dilemmas between the processes, decisions, and business models of private companies and democratic and human rights standards. This is a regional challenge that affects all the States of the Americas, poisons much of their internal deliberations, and will test their future electoral processes and the strength of their institutions.

This Commission and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have held that human rights enjoy the same protection and scope in both analog and digital environments. The internet is a platform and medium for the exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression, political participation, the rights of association and assembly, and economic, social, and cultural rights, among others. States are called upon to guarantee the necessary conditions for the enjoyment and exercise of these rights.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression consider it desirable for democratic discussions to be intense and offer full guarantees for controversy, which makes them vigorous and pluralistic. In this regard, those who take part in debates of general interest participate in a public arena that they are also called upon to protect. While the exchange of arguments and the public voicing of disagreements enrich the debate, violence and hate speech erode the democratic system. The IACHR expresses its concern about cracks in the party systems, as well as in institutional checks and balances, and calls for joint efforts to ensure that prominent figures and those who aspire to elected office actively contribute to keeping democratic deliberations free of violence, misinformation, hatred, and manipulation.

The Joint Declaration of the Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression warned in 2017 about how disinformation, violence, and social polarization threaten the integrity of democracy and human rights, mainly affecting the most vulnerable people. In this context, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur share the concern that has arisen in the region regarding the full enjoyment of human rights on the internet and invite the OAS member states to reflect together on the challenges of the present moment. Responses to this problem, both from the public and private sectors, must necessarily be in line with the framework of international human rights law. 

The IACHR recognizes the work undertaken to increase internet connectivity in the region; however, it regrets the absence of effective efforts to address the urgent need to make progress in digital literacy programs for the development of civic skills from the perspective of democratic coexistence and with a human rights approach. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression included this recommendation in its 2013 report on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, and reiterated it in the Standards for a Free, Open, and Inclusive Internet (2016); it also made recommendations to this effect in its Guide regarding Deliberate Disinformation in Electoral Contexts (2019). It is vitally important for the hemisphere to work toward creating frameworks that facilitate the advancement of this unfinished task through sustained and pluralistic processes that take account of differential approaches with special attention to the most vulnerable people. 

Plurality and diversity are an essential part of freedom of expression, and within this framework, the inter-American system, like the universal and European systems, places special emphasis on the protection of certain types of speech, such as political and public interest speech. Mass blocking, content removal, the permanent suspension of users, or what has come to be known as "deplatforming," are severe measures that should be assessed in light of international standards on freedom of expression, particularly in the case involving information of public interest or public officials in the exercise of their duties.

One of the inevitable challenges is to find consensus, through participatory processes, to help establish clear criteria—consistent with human rights—so that content moderation on the internet is in line with the aspirations of open democracies, with a plurality of voices, media, platforms, and opportunities. These criteria should reflect the need for restrictions to be clear and specific, ensure nondiscrimination, and consider their scalability and replicability. It is not clear that, in the upcoming electoral debates, those making these decisions will have a context equivalent to the one they have in the countries where they are based. 

In their role as guarantors of human rights, States are called upon to support this process by ensuring intermediary liability regimes that encourage technological development, provide legal certainty, and facilitate the implementation of human rights standards in all sectors while also respecting proposed mechanisms of multisectoral, open, and pluralistic internet governance.

The IACHR invites cooperation in tackling the challenges outlined above and has instructed the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to chart a path for inter-American dialogue that includes a working group integrated by States, civil society, regulators and technology platforms with the purpose of formulate recommendations for improving conditions for democratic debate, identify experiences in digital literacy for the development of civic skills, and help make Internet content moderation compatible with human rights standards. At the end of this process, the IACHR will receive a concept from RELE and will evaluate, within the mechanisms at its disposal, the one it considers most suitable to propose inter-American standards that address these challenges. The IACHR encourages all interested parties to support and participate in this initiative.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 026/21