Background: Human Rights and the Internet

As an increasing proportion of our lives move online, the Internet has become central to the exercise of core human rights, especially freedom of expression but also the rights to association, to education, to work and to take part in cultural life, among others. The UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have both affirmed that human rights standards apply to the online world. The Internet also supports the promotion and protection of human rights by improving communications and information sharing, providing a voice for human rights defenders, and strengthening democratic society by contributing to political, social, cultural, and economic development. Its importance to human rights has led to calls for access to the Internet itself to be considered a human right, including States’ duty to promote universal access to the Internet.

The growth of the Internet and its centrality to many aspects of modern life is starting to impact on our understanding of certain rights, especially the evolving dynamic between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression. The rise of the Internet has impacted significantly on the balancing of these rights by expanding the expressive sphere, often at the expense of traditional notions of privacy. Due to the ubiquity of digital technologies, people are choosing to share more information about themselves than ever before, which is collected, shared, and compounded by the permanence and accessibility of online information. In turn, efforts to protect privacy online often result in the restriction of speech, demonstrating the conflict between freedom of expression and privacy.

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