By Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters
GENEVA–The United Nations’ main human rights body has for the first time backed people’s right to freedom of expression on the Internet in the wake of the massive role that social media networks played in the Arab Spring. In a landmark resolution, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 47 members states agreed on Thursday that this right should be protected by all states and access to the Internet should also be guaranteed.
Both China and Cuba have tried to limit access to the Internet and voiced some reservations but joined the consensus recognizing “the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development.” “This outcome is momentous for the Human Rights Council,” said U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe, whose country co-sponsored the Swedish-led motion with countries including Brazil and Tunisia. “It’s the first ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world,” she told reporters. Tunisia’s envoy Moncef Baati said the Internet had played a vital role in mobilizing people in his country’s “revolution” last year. U.N. officials said it was the first U.N. resolution on the issue, but noted that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a U.N. agency, had affirmed the principle since 2003. China’s envoy backed the motion but said Internet users, especially youth, also needed to be protected from harmful websites. “We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent,” Xia Jingge told the Geneva forum, which ends a three-week session on Friday. “As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, violence, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of society and the public.”