For the first time, the role of the internet on the right to freedom of opinion and expression is being reported at the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council. This signals a clear recognition that the increasing prevalence of the internet in all aspect of our lives is becoming impossible to ignore, and that it is becoming pivotal in the realisation of our fundamental rights and freedoms.

At the same session, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women is also presenting her report on violence against women, its causes and consequences. The synchronicity of both reports, especially given the fact that human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible, calls for a close reading to identify the points of connection that can be built in the effort to recognise, analyse and address violations that affect the recognition, protection and fulfilment of women's human rights.

What is the UN Human Rights Council?

The UN Human Rights Council , or HRC, is an intergovernmental body that is made up of 47 States and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. It's main purpose is to address situations of human rights violations, and to make recommendations on them.

At this session, the HRC will review reports prepared by independent UN experts and hold interactive dialogues on the issues raised, which include extrajudicial and summary executions, human rights and transnational corporations, the independence of lawyers and judges, the rights of migrants, the right to education, cultural rights, human rights and foreign debt, poverty, the right to health, human trafficking, freedom of expression, and violence against women.

The HRC is a key process within the UN system to study, investigate, assess and provide recommendations on human rights issues and violations. The HRC undertakes a Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of all 192 UN member states once every four years.

It also has a "Special Procedures" mechanism where independent individuals (known as Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives or Individual Experts) or working groups with expertise on particular thematic areas are mandated to, amongst other things, respond to individual complaints and conduct studies. They prepare an annual report as well as specific reports on country missions which are presented to the HRC and respond to questions and comments on them.

At this session, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, and the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, will be presenting their reports to the HRC. The reports are prepared from consultation with government representatives, as well with non-governmental organisations and human rights advocates. They present an overview of the issues, challenges and forms of violations faced in the thematic area, as well as recommendations for ways in which the State can respond to them.

The internet and fundamental freedoms

The report by Frank La Rue notes that, "the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression", and that "the right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights" (para 20 & 22).

In other words, the internet is a critical resource that enables individuals to exercise their right to speak, impart opinions, share ideas, build knowledge and access information. In the process, it also enables us to participate in the economy, exercise our citizenship rights, get access to health information and services, form communities, engage in formal and informal processes to determine our social, cultural and political life, and more.

Meaningful access to the internet not only means having access to reliable, quick and affordable connection and related hardware, but also content that is relevant to our specific contexts and languages, and is unfettered by excessive limitations through ways like enforced filtering software or criminalisation of speech. It also means being able to use and interact in online spaces without fear of surveillance, data retention, threats, intimidation or violence.

Countering discrimination and violence against women

La Rue's report notes that the internet is a vital tool to fight inequality, especially in contexts where there is no independent media for the sharing of critical and objective views and information (para 19). This is especially important in the advancement of women's rights, given the persistent gender disparity that occurs in mainstream media all over the world in terms of decision-making positions and gender stereotyping in content-type and representation.

Manjoo's report notes that "inequality and discrimination, including intersecting forms of discrimination, causes violence against women" (para 40) and recommends that a holistic approach is needed to conceptualise, understand and address this violence.

Efforts to end violence against women must include effective responses and policies that ensures women in their diversity gain meaningful and equal access to the internet, to enable them to counter discrimination and inequality. Women and girls need access to resources and education to advance their capacity in using the internet for the advancement of their broad range of rights.

The Association for progressive Communication's research in the last few years shows a notable increase of violence against women that is mediated through information and communications technology. This includes cases of cyberstalking, online harassment, manipulation of images that impacts severely on reputation and violation of privacy and/or blackmail through actual or threats of dissemination of personal content such as private correspondence, photographs and videos - all of which disproportionately affects women. As noted in the UN Secretary General' s report on Violence Against Women (2006), "More inquiry is also needed about the use of technology, such as computers and cell phones, in developing and expanding forms of violence. Evolving and emerging forms of violence need to be named so that they can be recognized and better addressed" (para.155).

These emerging issues need to be adequately addressed by the State through a comprehensive approach that includes research and analysis to greater understand the structural and social dynamics that underpin these forms of violence against women, monitoring and documentation, legal recognition where appropriate and necessary including adequate protection for their right to privacy and data protection and other effective remedies.

With regards remedies, it is important to stress that censorship measures such as those mentioned in La Rue's report, including arbitrary blocking or filtering of content and criminalisation of legitimate expression, are inadequate to counter incidences of technology mediated forms of violence against women. Often, these measures not only facilitate "mission creep", but have the effect of disproportionately restricting women's right to freedom of expression and opinion.

In particular, content related to women's sexuality have been targets of blocking and censorship. For example, images of breastfeeding were removed on Facebook ("Censoring Breastfeeding on Facebook", 19 Dec 2008, New York Times) and advertisements on abortion services were restricted in some countries by Google ("Letter to Google concerning Restricting Advertisements that Promote Abortion Services", 30 June 2009, Women on Waves). This growing trend of restrictions runs counter to the realisation of women's right to expression, information and opinion which are key to the fulfilment of bodily integrity rights, education, civil and political engagement and individual self-determination.

Recognising diversity between women or intra-gender discrimination

Manjoo's report also notes that measures to eliminate violence against women need to examine discrimination and inequality between women, or intra-gender sex discrimination. Social location including geographical location, level of education, employment situation, marital relationships, access to political and civic participation, bodily attributes including race, skin colour, intellectual and physical abilities, age, language skills, ethnic identity and sexual orientation can place individual women at further risk to violence (para 22). This is important to bear in mind in the analysis and responses to ensuring universal and meaningful access to the internet to address discrimination and for the protection and fulfilment of rights.

Lesbian, queer, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) women in many parts of the world are especially invested in the internet to exercise a broad range of their rights, including education, health and political participation. However, they are disproportionately affected by measures to restrict internet content. LGBT content have been blocked or removed as being "pornographic" or "obscene". For example, the government of Indonesia ordered national internet service providers to block access to a webpage that published a comic form of the Yogyakarta Principles which talks about the human rights of LGBT groups for being pornographic (7 April 2011, Pelangi Perempuan).

Young and adolescent women are also especially impacted by measures to restrict internet content. For example, in the US, the Children's Internet Protection Act mandates the implementation of strategies and techniques such as filtering software to restrict internet content at public internet access locations, which includes schools and libraries that receive government funding. Research revealed that the varied implementation of this Act has resulted in legitimate information about sexual health and services being inaccessible. This can also disproportionately affect people from lower economic backgrounds who depend on public internet access points.

La Rue's report recommends that restriction to internet content be imposed only as an exceptional measure and must pass a three-part culmulative test:

  1. it must be provided by law, which is clear and accessible to everyone,

  2. it must pursue one of the purposes as set out in article 18, paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, namely i) to protect the rights or reputation of others, ii) to protect national security or public order, or public health or morals,

  3. it must be proven as a necessary and least restrictive means required to achieve the purported aim (para 69).

He further recommends that there should be adequate safeguards against abuse, including the possibility of challenge and remedy against its abusive application.

These requirement must further take into consideration the impact on people who are discriminated against or have relatively limited access to resources and civic or political participation due to their social location. The argument of "public morals" must not be used as a justification to further limit the capacity of people who are particularly vulnerable, at risk or discriminated against to use the internet in the advancement of their broad range of rights, including their rights to sexual citizenship, health, assembly, education and cultural life.

Right to privacy: interpersonal and structural safeguards

La Rue's report notes that "the right to privacy is essential for individuals to express themselves freely", and that "people's willingness to engage in debate on controversial subjects in the public sphere has always been linked to the possibilities for doing so anonymously" (para 53). This is especially true for LGBT people who face high personal, social and political costs due to their gender identity and sexual orientation in many parts of the world, including loss of employment, incarceration and violence.

Women are especially at risk from surveillance and violation of privacy by private individuals in the context of violence against women. This includes use of technology such as geolocation software and keyloggers to track and monitor online and offline activity. Measures to ensure meaningful protection to the right to privacy need to also address violations by private individuals, beyond the State and the private sector.

As noted in Manjoo's report, "violence crosses public and private domains and ranges from intimate and interpersonal violence to structural and systematic, and institutional forms of violence." As such, adequate safeguards to women's right to privacy need to be addressed in an equally holistic approach, including the provision of effective remedies when the right to privacy has been violated by private individuals.

Next steps: Inter-thematic dialogue and participation

The specificity of women's needs in its diversity with regards to the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and to the right to security and bodily integrity is critical in their comprehensive analysis, understanding and responses. This is not possible without concrete efforts to include and integrate women's rights advocates and actors from the State machinery on gender equality and the advancement of women's rights in the deliberation, study and responses to address violations to the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Similarly, the impact of the internet on the broad range of women's human rights need to be analysed and studied in efforts to address violence against women and girls. This calls for inter-thematic/issue dialogues and partnership between State actors and human rights advocates who work to deepen the understanding of impact and to develop comprehensive and holistic responses.

Image Making media is my right! by @ReelGrrls on Twitter, created for

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