When companies are held liable for content uploaded or sent by users, freedom of expression can suffer. Collaborative efforts should help advance policy solutions that better protect fundamental rights to expression and access to information.
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) believes that freedom of opinion and expression is a human right and guarantor of human dignity. Policies creating liability for carriers on the basis of content sent or created by users threaten to chill freedom of expression by incentivizing carriers to restrict the use of their services for any content that could be considered controversial, or to restrict the pseudonymous use of these services. This impetus is particularly strong where definitions of illegal content are vague and overbroad, incentivizing self-censorship and prior restraints on speech.
Around the globe, wired and wireless telecommunications carriers, web hosting companies, online service providers and even device manufacturers play critical roles in the process of getting information and ideas from point A to point B. In doing so, these companies enable platforms for expression that are vital to the work and lives of many.
A journalist working in a remote part of the world may upload an important story on politics to a hosted email service. A human rights advocate may connect to a local ISP to publish a live report. Ordinary citizens connect to search engines to learn more about a local health crisis or political scandal. A blogger may use a handheld device and a wireless service to capture a short post. Millions of people rely on ICT companies to carry a package of data through to its destination or to provide access to content posted by others.
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) believes policies that foster the availability and openness of these channels help advance the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, as well as promote commercial innovation and other societal benefits. GNI participants are working collaboratively to advance such policies. In addition, the GNI Principles offer guidance to companies on how to address important societal concerns and respond to government regulations in ways that show respect for the fundamental rights to free expression and access to information.
Governments are appropriately concerned about the use of communications networks for illicit purposes or in ways that endanger national security or the well-being of children. To address these concerns, governments have adopted a variety of approaches, which may include policies that subject carriers to legal penalties for the knowing (or even unknowing) abuse of their services for purposes the government deems harmful. Many of these policies oblige intermediaries to proactively monitor and police the information and ideas they transmit.
It is critically important that governments and other stakeholders consider these policies carefully and in light of the potential impact on basic human rights.
Carriers and conduits enable worldwide scale and availability of information by automatically transmitting or storing words, pictures, and videos created by individuals. Policies creating liability for carriers on the basis of content sent or created by users chill freedom of expression by incentivizing carriers to restrict the use of their services for any content that could be considered controversial, or to limit the pseudonymous or anonymous use of these services. The impact on expression tends to be particularly significant where laws defining content to be policed are vague and overbroad.
In contrast, where governments have sought to incentivize growth in the expressive (and commercial) capabilities of these technologies, they have enacted protections from damages claims and limited civil and criminal liability when companies act as “mere conduits” for content, or simply cache or host content.
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) was formed to help promote respect for the rights of freedom of expression and privacy and, in particular, to fashion operational guidance for companies and foster collaboration on public policy.
Ongoing activity around the world highlights the need for this Initiative. Calls for service providers to police user content and communications, under threat of greater liability, and at times under broad and vague standards of what content is considered illegal, illuminate the value of both collaborative action on public policy and guidance for responsible business actions.
In the case of participating GNI companies who offer or support online publishing services for users, these companies are committed to taking steps to help advance the free flow of information. These steps include:
- Developing appropriate risk assessment and mitigation strategies when entering new markets, particularly those where freedom of expression and privacy may not meet internationally recognized standards.
- Agreeing to seek clarification or modification from authorized officials when government restrictions appear overbroad, not required by domestic law or appear inconsistent with international human rights laws and standards on freedom of expression.
- Engaging government officials to promote the rule of law and the reform of laws, policies, and practices that infringe on freedom of expression and privacy – such as those described above.
- Acknowledging and recognizing the importance of proportionate and targeted initiatives that seek to identify, prevent the dissemination of, and limit access to illegal online activity such as child exploitation.
The full GNI membership of companies, NGOs, investors, and academics will be working collaboratively to help companies follow through on these commitments and to encourage governments around the world to promote laws, policies, and practices that protect and advance the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.
About GNI: https://globalnetworkinitiative.org/
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