Recognition of the internet’s part in the Arab Spring — the uprisings for democracy in the Middle East this year — has cemented the role of the internet as a tool for freedom and protest.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of 56 nations from across the developed and developing world, has now formally recognised this fact.
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In a report published last week, the transnational body recognised that “access to the internet should be seen as a fundamental human right and respected as much as freedom of expression”.
The OSCE’s analysis was the first ever of state regulations on Internet access within the 56-member body, and found that “everyone should have a right to participate in the information society and states have a responsibility to ensure citizens’ access to the internet is guaranteed”.
Highlighting Finland and Estonia — which were praised — Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s media representative said presenting the report, “some governments already recognise access to the internet as a human right. This trend should be supported as a crucial element of media freedom in the 21st century”.
Since last year, Finnish citizens have a legal right to broadband internet access, the first country to lay down such a rule, while Norway has also taken steps in that direction. Since the early 2000s, Estonia has also been receiving praise for its progressive internet policies.
Seven other states admitted they had regulations, however, to defend national security and to protect public health, allowing them to limit access to the internet in cases of state emergencies. At least 10 states also failed to submit any data to the OSCE for its report.
“Legislation in many countries does not recognise that freedom of expression and freedom of the media equally apply to internet as a modern means of exercising these rights”, Mijatovic noted.
As a result, the organisation offered guidelines to these countries to ensure that citizen access to the web was guaranteed, through clearly worded laws, for example, was well as refraining from blocking content and generally respecting freedom of expression and of the media.
“We will use the study as an advocacy tool to promote speech-friendly Internet regulation in the OSCE participating States,” Mijatovic said.
This recognition of internet access as equal to other basic human rights — such as freedom of opinion and expression — is in step with findings by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
A report tabled by the UNHRC before the United Nations General Assembly found disconnecting users from internet access to be a human rights violation.
The United Nations finding flies in the face of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle-East where leaders, facing protests organised via social networks, often choose to disconnect the internet entirely in retort.
A forced lack of internet access can also affect citizens of democratic nations, however, where there is a perceived threat to the status quo.
Laws in France and the United Kingdom — to give two examples — allowed the government to cut off internet access to people repeatedly found guilty of swapping files illegally on the internet.
These laws have proven to be controversial and are opposed by advocates of an “open internet” and “net neutrality” movement. — AFP with additional reporting by Staff Reporter