Internet shutdowns, gender, Net Neutrality, and more at the United Nations

Today is the start of the second convening of the United Nations Human Rights Council (“HRC”) for 2017, and we have once again partnered with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to give you a review of the digital rights issues that are being discussed.

Digital rights remain a priority for the 35th session of the HRC (“HRC35”), which runs through June 23, 2017 in Geneva. (You can follow the discussion online using the hashtag #HRC35.)

What’s happening

Delegates from 47 nations are examining expert reports on issues including online hate speech, harassment and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders, data collection and dis-aggregation for advancing human rights, and the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in facilitating the fulfillment of other human rights, such as the rights to health, education, and participation in public debate, particularly for marginalized groups.

This session marks the first appearance by the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, Haley has labeled the Human Rights Council “corrupt,” initially without offering any explanation or evidence, and then spoke last week of “its practice of wrongly singling out Israel for criticism.” Her remarks today contrasted the emphasis on Israel with treatment of Venezuela, and reiterated the need for membership requirements and accountability. She issued a carefully worded threat to withdraw from the Council, as anticipated. In our view, the U.S. should promote even-handed accountability for human rights, continue advancing norms at the Council — whether on the freedoms of expression and association or gender and sexual identity — and forego posturing or maneuvering that could further politicize the body.

Issues: internet shutdowns, zero rating, gender digital divide & more

The HRC is scheduled to discuss the new report by David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, regarding threats like internet shutdowns, network discrimination, and excessive government surveillance, and the responsibility corporations have to respect human rights in the digital space. This year, Kaye focuses on the telcos, internet service providers, and infrastructure and equipment vendors making up the “digital access sector.” Next year, he’ll cover platforms, applications, and services.

Internet shutdowns

Kaye finds that governments order shutdowns for a variety of reasons, including “to prevent cheating by students during national exams”; to suppress reporting, criticism or dissent during or around elections or protests; and “to ban the spread of news about terrorist attacks, even accurate reporting, in order to prevent panic and copycat actions.” He then cites evidence that “maintaining network connectivity may mitigate public safety concerns and help restore public order.” Kaye calls on governments to implement the landmark 2016 HRC resolution on free expression online and refrain from shutting down networks, and companies to identify, prevent, and mitigate contributions to harm.

Net Neutrality

This marks one of the first times a U.N. office has delved into Net Neutrality, which Kaye defines as “the principle that all internet data should be treated equally without undue interference.” At a time when several nations, including the United States and India, are reviewing regulations regarding Net Neutrality, Kaye stresses Net Neutrality’s importance to human rights, asserting that a state’s “positive duty to promote freedom of expression argues strongly for network neutrality in order to promote the widest possible non-discriminatory access to information.” Kaye also notes that threats to Net Neutrality, such as paid prioritization and zero rating, can “deny, deter, or exclude expression” online, and that such actions “often fail to meet the standards of human rights law.”


Regarding the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights in the digital space, Kaye stresses the importance of companies engaging in transparency reporting. These disclosures reveal government and private requests that impact the privacy and security of our data, accounts, and content. Noting that information about government requests “should be disclosed [by corporations] to the maximum extent allowed by the law,” on a regular and ongoing basis, Kaye makes a strong case, in line with recent U.N. resolutions, demanding that governments and companies disclose surveillance and censorship.

Access Now joined scores of other organizations, governments, and companies in submitting testimony for David Kaye’s report (you can find the full list here). We’re also co-sponsoring, with Article 19, APC, Privacy International, and Sweden, a side event at the Human Rights Council, Digital access, shutdowns, and surveillance: Private actors and respect for free expression, featuring Kaye, Internet Without Borders, APC, Nokia, and Telia Company.

Gender digital divide

The HRC will also review a report by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on ways to bridge the gender digital divide. According to the report, internet access has intensified inequalities, particularly between women and men. Only 47% of the world’s population is connected to the internet, and “the offline population is disproportionately poor, rural, older and female.” The report addresses both the causes and consequences of the gender digital divide, and provides recommendations for how governments can apply a human rights framework to improve women’s meaningful access to ICTs. Access Now contributed to the report.

The report identifies violence against women (VAW) online as a barrier to their use of the internet. It calls for a multifaceted approach to addressing online VAW, including prevention, reactive measures (such as swiftly take down unlawful content, and investigating the perpetrators), and redress for victims. It notes that governments are taking various approaches to tackle online VAW, but criticizes them for “failing to take appropriate action in situations of online violence against women, or are using such laws as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression.”

Freedom of assembly and association

The HRC will also consider the report of Maina Kiai, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and review a report on Kiai’s visit to the United Kingdom, which discusses a range of digital rights issues, including privacy, censorship, and government surveillance.

While there are no internet-specific resolutions expected at HRC35 — this is an off-year for the free expression resolution — we may see others, such as on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, that could touch on digital rights issues.

Once again, for a detailed review of the issues being discussed, check out our full joint review with APC, and follow the discussions online using the hashtag #HRC35.