The right to protest online

In the digital age, protests are no longer limited to assemblies and gatherings in physical spaces but are increasingly taking place, in whole or in part, online. Although calls have been made to recognise the right to protest online, there has been little human rights analysis of what this actually entails. Moreover, cybercrime laws in numerous countries outlaw many virtual protests without considering their impact on human rights. The issue of protests and digital technologies therefore deserves attention from an Internet governance perspective. Buddha Deb from Digital Empowerment Foundation India attended a session entitled The right to protest online at the Internet Governance Forum and shared the following insights:

IGF 2015: The right to protest online

The internet has increasingly been used as a platform to protest, as it engages millions of people for different purposes. However, the right to protest online hasn’t been recognised as a right to be especially protected. There have been a lot of discussions around the right to protest offline, but very little about the same right online. At the IGF 2015, there was a whole workshop dedicated to this right, with the participation of a number of distinguished panelists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Google, ARTICLE 19 and the Council of Europe (COE).

Gabrielle Guillemin from ARTICLE 19 talked about some of the issues that arise both offline and online, in relation to factors such as surveillance and reporting on protests.

Harry Halpin from MIT talked about his involvement in protest activity and how he was labelled as a terrorist by the “US and UK authorities” due to being involved in protest activity related to climate change.

The Council of Europe, as Elvana Thaci explained, is preparing a report on the right to protest online, and the organisation has started it with the conceptualisation of this right and how it applies to the Internet. The COE is exploring the grey areas of the right to freedom of assembly and association within this framework. It is also trying to identify how Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights applies to the internet.

There have been no cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights on the internet and the right to freedom of assembly and association. However, there are some principles which the COE has pronounced in non-internet cases that are relevant to the virtual world. For example, the Court has said that the notions of assembly and association are autonomous and they are not defined or constrained by whatever understanding that member states have in their national laws about these notions. The Council of Europe thinks that this can be a very interesting principle, especially if it can explore the so-called “informal association” that takes place online all the time, such as people just getting together, writing a petition, creating a Facebook group, etc. The COE has looked at the implications of mass surveillance for the exercise of the freedom of assembly and association, and it believes that this is definitely one form of restriction of and interference with this right and freedom.

At this moment, the COE is not developing any policy or policy guidelines on this particular issue, i.e. the right to protest online. However, the COE is developing policy guidelines on internet freedom and recommending to all the 47 member states that they evaluate themselves on the state of internet freedom. One of the components of this is the right to freedom of assembly and association, for which the COE has developed some indicators to help all member states complete the recommended evaluation. In this case, the Council of Europe has used the principles that the European Court of Human Rights has established in non-internet cases but which can be applicable in all online-related cases.

The panelist from Google stated that as a company it is committed to the value of freedom of speech, which includes protecting the expression of opinions, particularly the opinions of minorities, political criticism, and also the right to protest. However, it was pointed out that on different occasions, Google has removed “objectionable” content. The response that the audience received was that the company must comply with the law and that it also provides data requested from it on legal grounds.

Nevertheless, Google believes that there are two things that they have to do in order to strengthen the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression. Firstly, they can protect the information that is there, which is sometimes information about protests and people presenting online, and secondly, they have to protect anonymity online and encryption, and also to improve their policy on encryption and anonymity online.

There were a number of questions from the audience in terms of privacy, security and data protection related to online protest. Finally, the session was concluded by identifying the need to raise awareness regarding these protections of rights during online protest.

I am pretty happy to find the approach that the Council of Europe has taken. I would also like to see some principles related to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association that different courts around the world have pronounced in offline or non-internet-related cases, which should also be applicable to the virtual world. Secondly, I also feel that tech companies like Google and all should also integrate privacy enhancing technologies (PET) and security enhancing technologies (SET) into different communication tools and platforms to protect users’ data and confidentiality while organising any protest online.

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