On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution (PDF) supporting freedom of expression on the Internet. Even more, China -- which filters online content through a firewall -- actually backed the resolution. Go figure.
According to the resolution, the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice. All States are now called upon to promote and facilitate access to the Internet, and to facilitate international cooperation aimed at the development of media, information and communications facilities in all countries.
All 47 members of the Human Rights Council, including Cuba, signed the resolution. China only signed with the condition that the "free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent." Chinese delegate Xia Jingge told the Council that China has no plans to tear down the so-called Cisco-based "Great Firewall of China."
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the right to freedom of expression, "one of the essential foundations of a democratic society." It has also recognized the Internet's importance in the "promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression."
The news arrives after a Pew Survey was released on Thursday showing that a range of academics, policy analysts and technology company executives are divided over how far the private sector will go to protect Internet freedom. The big concern is that technology companies would worry about their revenue numbers first, thus cooperate with repressive regimes that seek to monitor or limit individual Internet use in some instances.
"Firms might decide to implement steps that protect dissidents only if it is cost-effective for them to do so," Simon Gottschalk, professor in the department of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the Pew researchers.
The big hurdle for Internet companies with global operations is dealing with local laws. As The New York Times points out, certain kinds of references to the royal family in Thailand are prohibited as well as atheism in Turkey. How will these companies now deal with freedom of expression while the local laws say differently? Some experts believe companies will turn a blind eye to situations like these, to how their products will be used.
"Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens," wrote Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research.
Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council isn't binding. In fact, it's principally useful for public shaming. "That even China, despite the obvious hypocrisy, felt compelled to sign on shows it isn’t comfortable publicly owning up to the Internet censorship regime that it tries to maintain," Roth said.