Responding to State Attacks on Freedom of Expression

Many intermediaries face the challenge of what to do when confronted by government demands which do not accord with international human rights standards. Some of the most challenging cases of private sector complicity in human rights violations involve China, though companies face similar dilemmas in other countries, including developed democracies.

No government has a perfect human rights record. What constitutes a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression is complex and different countries have different rules. By and large, it is reasonable to expect intermediaries to comply with local laws on these issues in the jurisdictions where they operate. But more active steps to avoid complicity in human rights abuses are warranted when operating in countries with poor human rights records.

Recommendations for Private Sector Online Intermediaries:

Assessing Risks

  • Intermediaries should carry out thorough human rights impact assessments before making any significant changes that could impact human rights, such as the launch of a new product or entry into a new market, and develop strategies to mitigate any identified risks.

 Communicating With Users

  • Intermediaries should publish guides which explain their internal procedures for responding to requests for them to take action, including by providing information on users, from State actors.
  • Intermediaries should offer specific guidance to human rights activists, or other oppressed groups, among their user base in countries where specific threats to these groups exist.

 Pushing Back

  • Intermediaries should only hand over user information when legally required to.
  • Intermediaries should notify users who are the subject of a request from a State actor as soon as they are legally allowed to.
  • Intermediaries should explore reasonable other avenues to push back against demands from State actors which violate human rights, including seeking diplomatic support from their home governments and intergovernmental organisations and partnering with other intermediaries in order to present a united front against problematic laws, policies or practices.
  • Intermediaries should, in appropriate cases and where these have a realistic chance of success, pursue legal options to contest abusive laws or policies and support advocacy to change oppressive laws or policies.
  • In more extreme cases of clear and grave violations of human rights, intermediaries should consider their options carefully, including refusing to obey even legal orders to act which would implicate them in serious human rights abuses and stopping operations in countries where their operations lead to them being complicit in serious abuses.

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