On June 3, EFF will begin live coverage of a critical discussion about online freedom of expression held by the 47 member states of the U.N Human Rights Council during its seventeenth session in Geneva. The meeting will include the introduction of a landmark report to the Council by United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue that advocates safeguards to protect free expression online including privacy and anonymity.

La Rue has spent the past year meeting with local organizations, including EFF, in numerous cities around the world. He has traveled to Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Cairo, Johannesburg and Delhi to gather information about key trends that stifle free expression online. These actions include the blocking of content, monitoring and identifying activists and critics, criminalizing legitimate expression, and adopting restrictive legislation to justify such measures. In his report, La Rue recommends that United Nations member states recognize the legitimacy of anonymous expression (a core EFF value) and the critical protection it affords. La Rue argues in his report that “privacy is essential for individuals to express themselves freely.”

La Rue’s statement and his recommendations are an essential step in making online anonymity the focus of policy discussions. Anonymity protects dissent by eliminating fear of reprisals and breaking the silence of self-censorship. It also plays a crucial role in environments hostile to journalism. In Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries for the press in the Americas, local journalists face constant threats and harassment for covering controversial issues such as corruption, drug trafficking and public security. For example, a well-known anonymous blog about the Mexican drug war assaults has provided graphic details about the violence--information that has not appeared on Mexican television or in local newspapers.

The report by the Special Rapporteur raises concerns about justifying broad surveillance powers under the name of national security or counter-terrorism. La Rue should be commended for questioning the ostensible motives for online surveillance. He points out that such measures “often [take] place for political, rather than security reasons in an arbitrary and covert manner.” La Rue should also be praised for recognizing the disturbing global trend towards expanding law enforcement and governmental power to monitor Internet users’ activities without legal safeguards against abuse.

In our submission [pdf] to the Special Rapporteur, EFF explained that the digital records of people's movements online is an important category of transactional data that requires the same protections applied to online content. Governments should procure a court order based on probable cause before tracking people’s actions online.

The La Rue report details the use of social networking sites (often heralded as “free expression tools”) to “identify and to track the activities of human rights defenders and opposition members.” La Rue warns the Council that, “...in some cases [governments] have collected usernames and passwords to access private communications of Facebook users.” This was the case during the Tunisian uprising when the Tunisian government targeted bloggers, activists, and dissidents by launching a cyber attack on Google, Yahoo, and Facebook to steal usernames and passwords. La Rue’s report acknowledges that several states have established a real-name identification system which requires that users fully identify themselves before they can post comments or upload content online. Such a system can compromise their ability of activists to express themselves anonymously, particularly in countries where human rights are frequently violated.

In our submission to the Rapporteur, EFF pointed out that since 2003, the South Korean government has sought cooperation with Internet Service Providers to develop real-name systems to eliminate online anonymity. Although not required by law, there’s a similar trend in the terms of service adopted by some Internet media services in the U.S. For example, Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities requires Facebook users to provide their real name and other identifying information. This practice creates serious risks for dissidents and human rights workers, who must choose between revealing their identities, which can lead to government reprisals, and using a pseudonym, which leaves their accounts vulnerable to deletion for terms-of-service violations.

La Rue also acknowledges in his report that many countries are taking steps “to reduce the ability of Internet users to protect themselves from arbitrary surveillance, such as limiting the use of encryption technologies.” These acts remind us how important it is for Internet users to have access to strong encryption and the implications of U.S. export controls on cryptography.

La Rue also criticizes the criminalization of defamation laws. In Peru, a well-known blogger, Jose Godoy, was sentenced for aggravated defamation for criticizing a former Peruvian minister and Congressman. As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported over the years, criminal defamation laws and over-broad judicial decisions affect independent journalism in many countries in Latin America.

La Rue concludes his report by:

  • Calling upon States to ensure that individuals can express themselves anonymously online.
  • Calling upon States to refrain from adopting real-name registration systems.
  • Underscoring that national security or counterterrorism cannot be used to justify restricting the right to expression unless an imminent legitimate threat is demonstrated.
  • Underscoring the obligation of States to adopt effective privacy and data protection laws in accordance with article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Human Rights Committee’s general comment No. 16.
  • Calling all States to decriminalize defamation.

The Human Rights Council began its seventeenth session on May 30 and will conclude its meeting on June 17. The Association for Progressive Communications has delivered an statement during the general debate on the first day of the session, and will be organizing an event after the Council's session at the United Nations on Friday, 1:00-3:00 p.m. CET. EFF will be keeping the public informed with more information about the discussions after La Rue’s report is delivered on June 3.