Fostering freedom online: the role of Internet intermediaries

Freedom of expression is a universal human right that applies equally to the internet as to the offline world. The goal of this report, the third in UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom, is to shed light on how Internet intermediaries – services that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression – both foster and restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances, technologies, and business models.

With the rise of Internet, intermediaries that play a mediating role on the internet between authors of content and audiences, UNESCO took a joint initiative, with the Open Society Foundations, the Internet Society, and Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, to examine this recent historical phenomenon and how it impacts on freedom of expression and associated fundamental rights such as privacy.

The report’s authors have studied the policies and practices of companies representing three intermediary types (internet service providers, search engines, and social networking platforms) across ten countries. The three case studies highlight challenges and opportunities for different types of intermediaries in respecting and protecting online freedom of expression.

The research showed that Internet intermediaries are heavily influenced by the legal and policy environments of states, but they do have leeway over many areas of policy and practice affecting online expression and privacy. The findings also highlighted the challenge where many state policies, laws, and regulations are poorly aligned with the duty to promote and protect intermediaries’ respect for freedom of expression. It is a resource which enables the assessment of internet intermediaries’ decisions on freedom of expression, by ensuring that any limitations are consistent with international standards. The research also recommends specific ways that intermediaries and states can improve respect for internet users’ right to freedom of expression. This rich material will be of great value to all stakeholders.

This research also formed the foundation for a dedicated chapter in the publication World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development – Special Digital Focus 2015.

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