The pandemic underscores the importance of Internet freedom
Fighting the pandemic requires access to factual information on the Internet. How to bridge the divide between the digital haves and have-nots? How to defend the rule of law and human rights in these exceptional times? These were some of the questions debated in the panel discussion marking the publication of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) Joint Statement on COVID-19 and Internet Freedom.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not offer any excuses for governments to restrict the freedom of expression, association and assembly under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Internet access should always be secured, and online content should be regulated only when necessary under human rights conventions and the law. Violence against and the harassment of human rights activists should be prevented. Internet shutdowns and deliberate disruptions should be stopped. Temporary measures must not become permanent policies and they should be adopted through a democratic process.
These are some of the key points in the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) Joint Statement on COVID-19 and Internet Freedom. The statement is the first of its kind issued by an intergovernmental organisation concerning the coronavirus pandemic and digital development.
Representatives of Canada, Finland and the United States as the countries preparing the FOC joint statement held a panel discussion together with human rights organisations on 8 June 2020 regarding the joint statement and Internet freedom. One of the speakers at the event was Mikko Kinnunen, Director General of the Political Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.
Human rights and rule of law must be respected during a state of emergency
Nearly 90 countries have introduced emergency decrees to varying degrees, so concerns about human rights, the rule of law and democracy are not unfounded. It is crucial to ensure that any emergency measures adopted are necessary under the human rights law and that they have a clear end date. All actions taken by a government must be based on the law and be subject to public scrutiny.
These principles were recently put to practice in Finland, when travel between the region of Uusimaa and the rest of the country was temporarily restricted.
Kinnunen emphasised the importance of trust between the public and the authorities in the effort to mitigate the pandemic.
“This is best achieved in an open democracy, through transparent communications while honouring human rights. The pandemic is a global phenomenon, which must be responded to through international cooperation. One lesson learnt from the pandemic is that we need to better coordinate national and international measures. In situations such as this, international leadership is needed more than ever,” Kinnunen said.
The problem of the digital divide
Fighting the pandemic requires access to factual information on the Internet throughout the world. The digital divide, the division of people into the digital haves and have-nots, within and between countries only exacerbates and prolongs the pandemic.
The most vulnerable populations and individuals have the poorest protections against the virus, making them more likely to suffer high mortality as a result. Pandemic may increase inequality.
Do governments have the right to remove misinformation and systemic disinformation from social media platforms? And what is the legal liability of the companies themselves?
According to the panelists, there were two aspects to this question. While the spread of disinformation needs to be addressed, the power of governments to remove content from the Internet could lead to wider censorship.
Mikko Kinnunen described the Finnish experience, in which the authorities and the Internet and social media platforms have voluntarily agreed to collaborate.
The pandemic has speeded up the introduction of systems for monitoring people’s health and movements. The panelists pointed out that such powers must be based on open and public preparation, free will and democratic oversight.
Rauno Merisaari, Ambassador for Human Rights and Democracy, and Jatta Jämsén, Desk Officer, Unit for Human Rights Policy
The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is a group of 31 countries deeply committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online. Access to the Internet should be open and secure.
Finland will be the Chair of FOC in 2021. The preparations for the year are in progress and according to Rauno Merisaari, Ambassador for Human Rights and Democracy, the aim is to highlight the role of open access to the Internet in social development especially in Africa and the need to increase the influence of FOC in international policy-making.
Finland will host a large international conference on this theme in late 2021.