Global Internet Liberty Campaign Member Statement on "Human Rights and the Internet"

Prepared for a one day briefing session for Members of the European Parliament, 27th January 1998, in Brussels.

The Global Internet Liberty Campaign is a group of human rights and civil liberties organisations which advocate the following:

  • Prohibiting prior censorship of on-line communication.
  • Requiring that laws restricting the content of on- line speech distinguish between the liability of content providers and the liability of data carriers.
  • Insisting that on-line free expression not be restricted by indirect means such as excessively restrictive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet.
  • Including citizens in the Global Information Infrastructure (Internet) development process from countries that are currently unstable economically, have insufficient infrastructure, or lack sophisticated technology.
  • Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  • Ensuring that personal information generated on the Internet for one purpose is not used for an unrelated purpose or disclosed without the person's informed consent and enabling individuals to review personal information on the Internet and to correct inaccurate information.
  • Allowing on-line users to encrypt their communications and information without restriction.

We, the undersigned members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign consider that the following issues are important with respect to Human Rights and the Internet. Human Rights protection on the Internet is important, particularly freedom of speech and privacy. The Internet is also important to those working for Human Rights, as it can provide a secure means of communicating between and coordinating the work of Human Rights groups.

Human Rights protection on the Internet

Freedom of expression

The European Convention and international human rights law enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. These core documents explicitly protect freedom of expression without regard to borders, a phrase especially pertinent to the global Internet:

  • "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of borders." Article 10, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
  • "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." Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Freedom of speech is important on the Internet

The Internet is a unique communication medium. Like no other medium before, it allows individuals to express their ideas and opinions directly to a world audience, while allowing them access to other ideas, opinions and information to which they may not otherwise have access.

While the mass media usually responds to the economic and political interests of those who control it, such controls do not presently exist on the Internet. Here, citizens from the most repressive regimes are able to find information about matters concerning their governments or their human rights records that no newspaper may dare print, while denouncing the conditions under which they live, for the world to hear. The Internet allows us an intimate look at other countries, other people and other cultures which few before were ever able to attain. This power to give and receive information, so central to any conception of democracy, can be truly achieved on the Internet, as nowhere before.

This unprecedented power, however, can be very threatening to repressive regimes. Traditional methods of censorship - embargoing newspapers, threatening journalists, closing down presses - do not work on the Internet - the censoring techniques that these regimes will engage in, and their rationalisations, are not as well unknown, but they can be just as destructive.

It should be noted that:

  • The vast majority of Internet use is for legitimate purposes;
  • The effect of access and use of this global interactive medium has been to promote and defend civil and political rights worldwide;
  • The experiences of communities in different countries indicates that few things could be more threatening to authoritarian regimes than access and use of the medium which knows no boundaries and is very hard to control;
  • On the Internet, citizens are not mere consumers of content but also creators of content and the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought. (from the judgment on the US Communications Decency Act); and
  • Individuals and communities have been using the new- found freedom online to link, interact and work collectively in this global work space. This fundamental shift in power has created a possibility for every individual to be a publisher.

Issues which will infringe on free speech

Blocking, filtering, and labelling techniques can restrict freedom of expression and limit access to information.

Specifically, such techniques can prevent individuals from using the Internet to exchange information on topics that may be controversial or unpopular, enable the development of country profiles to facilitate a global/universal rating system desired by governments, block access to content on entire domains, block access to Internet content available at any domain or page which contains a specific key-word or character string in the URL, and over-ride self-rating labels provided by content creators and providers.

In addition to direct government censorship of Internet communications, or privatised censorship, freedom of speech in the Internet is threatened by diverse factors.

The most conspicuous, and often disregarded, impediment to the achievement of freedom of speech online is the problem of access to the Internet. Accessing the Internet either requires the possession of a computer and payment to an Internet Service Provider, or access to a facility from where one can connect. This means, that generally only the affluent will have access. Governments can control freedom of expression of sections of the population by hindering their access to the Internet. This may be done directly by imposing high taxes on computer products and supporting telephony monopolies that keep phone rates high, and thus discourage the use of the Internet, or indirectly by not creating community centers where people may have low-cost access to the Internet.


The European Convention and international human rights law enshrine the right to privacy. These core documents explicitly protect the privacy of correspondence:

Why privacy is important on the Internet

As noted above the privacy of communication is explicitly protected by international agreements and will become increasingly important for citizens in the information society.

Therefore, we believe that policies concerning cryptography should be based on the fundamental right to engage in private communication. We oppose efforts that would lead to the development of communications infrastructure designed for surveillance.

Of special concern is the protection of privacy on the Internet. Electronic communications can be very easily intercepted by anyone who wants to. Sending an e-mail message is thus the equivalent of sending a postcard. In the human rights arena especially, many matters discussed among NGOs are extremely confidential. Names of witnesses to human rights violations, for example, need to be kept from those who would harm them. Repressive governments commonly use their intelligence services to tap the phone communications of human rights groups and intercept their mail. It is very likely that they are also intercepting electronic mail.

How privacy can be protected on the Internet

Unlike phone calls and paper mail, however, electronic mail can be easily encrypted so that only those to whom it is directed can read it. This means that anyone, such as NGOs, wanting to communicate delicate information freely, can do so, without having to fear the consequences of others, such as governments, accessing it.

Trusted third parties make crypto insecure

It was recently discovered in Sweden that the security of the 400,000 to 500,000 copies of Lotus Notes used in that country is compromised. Lotus Notes includes advanced cryptography in its e-mail function, but the codes that protect the encryption have been surrendered to American authorities as an export condition. With them, the U.S. government can decode encrypted information.

Any such key escrow, or deposit of keys with government agencies, or Trusted Third Parties, makes any encryption performed with those keys inherently insecure. Regardless of what precautions are taken by the agency or Trusted Third Party, all keys held by them are vulnerable to discovery by unauthorised persons.

Internet and Human Rights work

The Internet is one of the best means for providing information on Human Rights, because it has the potential of reaching everyone, including those most in need of such information. E-mail also makes communication between NGOs cheap and easy, and allows for better coordination of actions.

Cryptography can be used to secure the privacy of such e- mail communication. Unfortunately, national governments have already taken steps to detain and harass users and developers of cryptography. However, strong cryptography is already in use by human rights advocates.

The following examples of the use of the Internet by NGOs include many examples from the work of Derechos. Similar examples can be found in the work of other NGOs.

  • Using the Internet to expose human rights violations and let people know about them. Many human rights organisations throughout the world have instituted e- mail lists to propagate their press releases and denunciations vis a vis human rights violations. Many of these groups also use Usenet to post their information, or it is posted there by others. In addition, many human rights groups have instituted web pages where this info is available. For example see URL: to see what Israeli groups are doing; they are publishing their reports, actions, press releases and even information about Israeli court decisions and laws that permit torture, on their sites and running mailing lists;
  • The effect of putting information online is impossible to measure - but it's much greater than one imagines. Derechos have had messages from people running radio and TV programs in different countries that use their press-releases and information - thus multiplying the audience for these. Journalists often use Derechos information as background in their pieces - and to make contacts with potential sources;
  • Using the Internet to solicit action. Many organisations now use e-mail to distribute action alerts calling for letters to be written on behalf of specific issues. Derechos work with Fray Antonio Puigjane is a good example of this. Fray Antonio is a prisoner of conscience in Argentina. In addition to many other things Derechos have done for him - Derechos set up a home page about him <URL:> containing information about him and his case, and sample letters to send to the Argentinian authorities as well as an address where to write to him. Last year he was receiving an average of a thousand postcards and letters a week (most of them probably did not come from his web page, but a good proportion did) and it can be assumed that these same people were also writing to the government. Many of these people contacted Derechos via e-mail to share his letters to them. A lot of people were inspired to work for his freedom just through that page;
  • Using the net to gather information. The human rights information online is extraordinary - beginning with the University of Minnessota web site, and now with the UNHCHR site online, it's much easier to do human rights research;
  • Using the Internet to coordinate actions. The Internet is a great tool for NGOs and activists to be in touch with each other and coordinate actions;
  • Making contacts. This is essential for people to begin helping each other. Derechos are working now on trials against Argentinian military in Germany because of contacts made online; and
  • The importance of allowing encryption technologies needs to be underlined. In the trial of the Argentinian military in Spain, on charges of genocide and terrorism, for disappearing Spanish citizens, Derechos use PGP to encrypt particularly confidential messages that go between Spain and Argentina, to stop the Argentinian intelligence forces from being able to read them and so try to jeopardise the trial.

The following examples of how NGOs have benefited from using the Internet are taken from articles by Carlos- Alberto Afonso, Ibase director, Brazil, and Roberto Bissio, director of Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Uruguay:

  • December 22nd, 1988, Brazil: Chico Mendes was killed in Xapuri (Acre state, near the Peruvian and Bolivian frontiers). One hour later the information reached Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo Newspapers, and Ibase, a Brazilian NGO which operates Alternex, one of the seven founding networks of the APC network of NGOs. From Alternex and through PeaceNet in California, the information was disseminated around the world. Even before the information was published in Newspapers, radios and TVs, the Brazilian government was flooded with telegrams and faxes. Due to e-mails, the rapid and massive denunciation of the crime and the strong pressure put on the Brazilian government, the killers were arrested and convicted.
  • October 3rd, 1993, Russia: Three trade-unionists, leaders of the "Labor Party" (A. Segal, B. Kagarlitsky and V. Kondratov) opposed the attack on the Chabolovska, a TV building in Moscow. They were arrested, maltreated, and deprived of their elementary rights to legal guarantees by the police, in this politically confused period. One day later, the information reached the vice-president of the General Trade-Union Confederation in Moscow (V. Balog), who decided to use e-mail to set up an international campaign to free the three trade-unionists. Only some minutes after V. Balog started using the Glasnet Network, the police were submerged by telephone calls from Europe, Japan, USA, and other countries all over the world. Again, the international pressure was so important that the three trade-unionists were free after some hours.

These examples show how important the Internet can be for NGOs. By enabling early access to information, immediate dissemination of calls for campaigns, and the organisation of wide international pressure, the Internet greatly increases their lobbying capacities. Organisations like World Organization Against Torture, who distribute actions both in English and Spanish via e-mail and the web (, benefit a lot from this tool. Third World NGOs use the Internet to widen their audience, and have information on what's going on in their countries reach the whole world.

Policy Recommendations

When formulating policy with respect to the Internet, the initiative should be taken to expressly enshrine freedom of expression as a principle. This should include:

  • Prohibiting prior censorship of on-line communication on the Internet;
  • Demanding that any restrictions of on-line speech content be clearly stated in the law and limited to direct and immediate incitement of acts of violence;
  • Requiring that laws restricting the content of on- line speech distinguish between the liability of content providers and the liability of data carriers;
  • Insisting that on-line free expression not be restricted by indirect means such as excessively restrictive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet;
  • Calling for the promotion of non-commercial public discourse on the Internet;
  • Promoting the wide dissemination of diverse ideas and viewpoints from a wide variety of information sources on the Internet; and
  • Ensuring that the Internet enable individuals to organise and form on-line associations freely and without interference.

When formulating policy with respect to the Internet, respect for the privacy of communication on the Internet should be guaranteed by:

  • Ensuring that personal information generated on the Internet for one purpose is not used for an unrelated purpose or disclosed without the person's informed consent;
  • Enabling individuals to review personal information on the Internet and to correct inaccurate information;
  • Providing privacy measures for information regarding on-line business transactions as well as content; and
  • Allowing users of the Internet to encrypt their communications and information without restriction.

The above recommendations are also pertinent to individual governments in shaping their own policies with respect to on-line communication. In addition, the following recommendations apply to domestic Internet policies:

  • To ensure that domestic Internet services are designed to ensure universal access, governments should provide full disclosure of information infrastructure development plans and encourage democratic participation in all aspects of the development process. They should also advocate widespread use of the Internet and strive to provide adequate training. In addition, governments should urge citizens to take an active role in public affairs by providing access to government information; and
  • In order to guarantee the privacy of on-line communication, governments should put in place enforceable legal protections against unauthorised scrutiny and use by private or public entities of personal information on the Internet. They should also oppose controls on the export and import of communications technologies, including encryption. In addition, governments should conduct investigations on the Internet pursuant only to lawful authority and subject to judicial review.


Protecting freedom of speech on the Internet is not only important as a basic Human Right in general, but is particularly important for those working for Human Rights. If governments have the power and ability to censor some information, they have the ability to censor it all, which includes Human Rights information that is negative to their country.

Protecting the privacy of Internet users, including removing restrictions on the use of cryptography is not only important for Internet users in general, but is particularly important for those working for Human Rights. If governments have the power and ability to read all communications on the Internet, they have the power to disrupt the work of organisations which are working to combat Human Rights abuses in their country.


This statement signed by the following members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign: