Controversial new telecommunications rules proposed by the United Nations threaten global freedom of expression online and may violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Unesco has warned. The proposed regulations, to be debated by 193 nations at the World Conference on international Telecommunications in Dubai next month, have been roundly attacked by an array of organisations, from multinational technology companies to civil rights groups and labour unions.
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And now, in an unprecedented intervention, Unesco’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Professor Guy Berger, has warned that the new rules will not only “threaten freedom of expression” but may also “incur extensive public criticism that could impact upon the UN more broadly.”
The so-called International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) were last reformed at a summit in Melbourne, Australia in 1988. They include a new framework designed to absorb the internet and video, voice and data traffic into UN control.
The treaties are administered by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an arm of the UN created in 1865 to regulate embryonic telegraph technology. It argues that the reforms are needed to keep pace with communications revolution brought by the internet.
Freedom of expressionProfessor Berger said: “As the ITRs are dealing with a converged ICT world nowadays, care should be taken not to adversely impact on the exercise of human rights in the digital age including freedom of expression, access to information and press freedom.
“Any possibility that the ITRs could threaten freedom of expression can be expected to incur extensive public criticism that could impact upon the UN more broadly, beyond ITU.”
“Unesco joins a growing body of vocal critics, from civil rights groups and labour unions to big telcos and companies like Google, who fear that the new rules as well as submissions by nations including China and India could pave the way for widespread political and state intervention into the online world under the guise of national and international security.”
The Assistant Director General for Communication-Information, Janis Karklins, stressed to Equal Times this week that UNESCO does not have a telecommunications mandate and only has observer status at next month’s conferment.
“But as Unesco is working on freedom of media, including new media, from that side we have a very clear interest in the outcome of the conference and would like to see that the outcomes protect and promote freedom of expression,” he said.
In his letter to the General Secretary of the ITU, Dr Hamdoun Touré, Professor Berger identifies Article 5A.4 of the new ITRs which says that member states must “ensure unrestricted public access to international telecommunication services and the unrestricted use of international telecommunications, except in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other States, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.”
ConcernsProfessor Berger writes that Unesco is concerned about the words “information of a sensitive nature”, arguing that this designates a new criterion for limiting access to services that was not recognised in the older rules.
“The phrase entitles Member States to exercise related constraints on the right to freedom of expression online, which in turn would also limit public access to the range of information allowed on the Internet. The limitation could also impact on the boundaries for the media to operate independently,” the letter warns.
“In particular, the phrase does not conform to the accepted international standards as set out by…the binding elaboration of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Professor Berger writes that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is widely accepted as being the binding elaboration of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not provide for limitations based on “sensitivity”.
“The consequence of this additional ground for limitation could be to open the way for an expansion of cases of curtailment of freedom of expression, against the general situation that the right should be respected and limitations be kept to a minimum.”
“Furthermore, we would note that from the point of view of Unesco’s mandate, the term “sensitive” has a non-specific and potentially subjective character, and does not meet the tests of providing consistency or predictability to the public. The broadness of the proposed wording could therefore end up authorizing wide-ranging steps which de jure amount to violations, rather than legitimate limitations, of the right to freedom of expression.”