A Legal and Regulatory Perspective: Better Protection for Freedom of Expression in the Age of Digital Communications.

Historically, telecommunication, broadcasting, and other media were separate industry segments; they used different technologies and were governed by different regulations. The recent convergence of communications is dissolving established barriers, not only between professional journalists and citizens using the new tools, but also in the legal and regulatory environment.

However, the legal system has been slow to adjust to the changes caused by the convergence of telecommunication and broadcasting (including public service broadcasting) and the merger of broadband operators and Internet service providers.

Various policies and approaches exist on privacy and freedom of expression including industrial policy and regulation such as copyright, user-centric approaches related to child protection policy, fraud, defamation and hate speech, net-centric policies linking to domain names, and security policy in terms of privacy and freedom of expression. How do we employ these existing mechanisms to better protect freedom of expression in the age of digital communications? If the existing mechanisms are inadequate, what should be done?

The human rights organization, Article 19, recently pointed out that Internet intermediaries play a key role in facilitating the connections between the providers of information and the users. Today, they are the new postal service, telephone network, local newspaper, and broadcast station. But how they are addressed by civil society and governments is not yet clearly established, and consequently freedom of expression is often being unduly limited.

“[The] Internet is not tidy. It is complex. Everyone is both a data subject and a data controller,” said Richard Allan from the online social portal, Facebook, during the recent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2010. This new relationship set up by social networks can raise critical legal challenges: for governments to enforce laws, which can limit freedom of speech; for Internet companies to protect privacy and develop standards in an online environment; for users, and especially for young people, to know how to protect their privacy and free speech.

Food for Thought:

  • What are legal and human rights implications of social networks on freedom of expression, privacy, and personal data protection?
  • How to protect bloggers and users’ right to freedom of expression on the Internet and social networks?
  • How to find applicable standards and legislation and share good practices on privacy protection?
  • What is the role of Internet service providers/web hosting companies? Are they neutral bystanders? And how to treat conflict of jurisdiction created by the trans-border nature of the web and social networks?
  • Which effect does the new convergence of media have on the enabling environment for freedom of expression?
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