Dunja Mijatović: Chronicling infringements on internet freedom is a necessary task

Media Freedom on the Internet- An OSCE GuidebookAs the OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media, I believe that the rights afforded to producers and consumers of traditional media equally apply to new media platforms as well.

That is why my office, an independent institution that is part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, will continue to monitor developments across the 57-state region of the international organisation to alert governments to the dangers of unnecessary and excessive regulation of this great, new electronic frontier.

As part of these monitoring activities, my office recently published Media freedom on the Internet – an OSCE guidebook, written by Law Professor Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul Bilgi University. Akdeniz, one of three winners of the 2016 Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression Prize in the legal service category, was also the author of the online publication Freedom of Expression on the Internet, a study of legal provisions and practices related to freedom of expression, the free flow of information and media pluralism on the internet in the OSCE participating States.

His latest publication provides a concise overview and update of these issues. It also reviews OSCE media freedom commitments, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

Too many OSCE participating states block, filter and shut down websites and social media platforms. These restrictive measures, of varying magnitude, have the overarching goal of suppressing free expression online.

To me, the human rights framework strengthening free expression on the internet is clear. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Indeed, this declaration, adopted in 1948, has withstood the test of time, providing a framework for the protection of expression on the internet, as well as print media or free speech.

And in 2012, with the adoption of the landmark Resolution 20/8, the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” the UN Human Rights Council confirmed that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies online in exactly the same way as it does to traditional media and speech.

So what’s the issue?

Governmental authorities, politicians, law enforcement officials and, yes, free expression campaigners still tend to frame the issue of internet regulation as a debate without modification, pitting one essential value against another. In the case as it is postulated today that means trading off civil rights for national security. And vice versa.

Confusing the situation further are the calls from those who claim that governments and their regulatory authorities have absolutely no right to interfere with the transmission of ideas across new media platforms.

Governments do have a crucial role to play when it comes to regulating the internet and guaranteeing its freedom. This responsibility extends to the protection of minors from harmful content, combating racism and inhibiting content inciting hatred or violence and even fighting cyber crime. Conduct that constitutes a crime in the real world does not deserve even a patina of protection simply because new technologies are employed in its development and transmission.

But governments must also ensure that all stakeholders, including civil society, are consulted and involved in these efforts ensure that regulations designed to ensure the safety of the internet also prioritise and safeguard free expression. To put it simply, the less regulation the better. And regulations need to result in limited disruption to the creation and distribution of ideas and opinions and only for clearly defined and defensible reasons.

Professor Akdeniz’s new treatise provides a list of helpful do’s and don’ts for policymakers engaged in legislative drafting and regulatory enforcement. They would be wise to pay heed to the recommendations.

The publication is available online at www.osce.org/fom/226526.

#IndexAwards2015: Campaigning nominees Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak

Professors Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak are cyber-law experts and internet rights activists who have campaigned vigorously against the Turkish government’s increasingly restrictive internet access laws. Together, they have raised repeated objections to the controversial Internet Law No 5651, which ostensibly blocked access to child pornography and other harmful content but has also been used to censor politically sensitive content such as pro-Kurdish or left-wing websites. It has been used to block around 50,000 websites.

In February 2014, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased the legislative reach of Law 5651, giving the country’s telecommunications authority (ICTA) more powers over Turkey’s internet users, such as storing user activity data for up to two years, or blocking URLs without court approval. Erdogan immediately made use of the latter opportunity by ordering the ICTA to block Twitter and YouTube in March 2014. Twitter had played a huge role in the escalation of Turkey’s Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013, during which many protesters were arrested and fined for posts to social media.

Social media channels were also being used to circulate damaging information about Erdogan and the AKP, his political party. Following revelations of widespread government corruption late in 2013, wiretapped phone conversations were leaked and spread via Twitter appearing to implicate Erdoğan and senior party members – one recording appears to include Erdogan telling his son to hide a large amount of cash.

He ordered the Twitter block in time to halt the spread of the injurious recordings before nationwide local elections at the end of March. Similarly, the YouTube block was instigated hours after a secret recording at Turkey’s foreign ministry, showing the government’s considerations for military involvement in Syria, was uploaded to the website.

In response to the blocks, Akdeniz and Altiparmak applied to the European Court of Human Rights to request an injunction against the ban. An administrative court in Ankara declared the ban illegal. After the government ignored this decision the pair applied to the highest court in Turkey, the Constitutional Court. Their case was successful, and Twitter was unblocked in April. Their advocacy efforts also helped lift the YouTube ban in June.

Despite their success, Akdeniz and Altiparmak say there is still a huge cause for concern. Even though Twitter and YouTube have now been unblocked, the legal framework for censorship has not been removed. In fact, as soon as Erdogan switched from prime minister to president in September 2014, he quietly slipped more amendments to 5651 through parliament, which allowed even more data logging and even quicker website blocking.

In protest against their country’s rapidly growing disregard for its citizens’ internet rights, Akdeniz and Altiparmak widely publicised their boycott of the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum, which was held in Istanbul in September 2014.

This article was posted on March 2 2015 at indexoncensorship.org