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U.N. Human Rights Council Backs Internet Freedom


The United Nations Human Rights Council has declared people have a right to freedom of expression on the Internet. This is the first time that the council has extended the definition of human rights into the virtual world. And as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the resolution had nearly universal support, even from countries which censor the Internet.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The U.S. and Sweden have been spearheading the effort to protect freedom of expression on the Internet. U.S. Ambassador Eileen Donahoe says, in the end, the 47 member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council each voted to include freedom of expression online as a basic human right.

AMBASSADOR EILEEN DONAHOE: And to the same extent that you have to protect and promote traditional freedom of expression in the offline world, you have to protect freedom of expression in the online space.

SYDELL: Though countries around the world differ on their ideas of freedom of expression, Donahoe says all over the world, governments want their countries to have Internet access.

DONAHOE: People feel that regardless of their level of economic development, there's this sense all over the world that the Internet is really the engine of economic growth and job creation, etcetera.

SYDELL: And many business experts say there is a connection between starting a new business and speaking freely online. Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, was formerly a special assistant to President Obama for science technology and innovation policy. She says businesspeople have to feel safe communicating without fear of the prying eyes of government.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: So the ability of someone to work from a remote location, to collaborate with colleagues, to insert their expertise where it's most needed is made possible by the Internet in a way we've never seen with any other form of communications technology in the past.

SYDELL: China wants the economic growth made possible by the Internet, but its envoy says Internet users - especially youth - need to be protected from harmful websites. And the U.N. resolution has no actual legal force. Still, Crawford says it can be a useful tool because it sets a standard. Many Western corporations doing business in China or other repressive countries can use it to negotiate terms with those governments.

CRAWFORD: Many of them would like to withstand censorship efforts by countries with which they feel forced to do business. And this just gives them more of an argument that they shouldn't be forced to block citizens from speech they want to get.

SYDELL: Many countries have accused the U.S. of dominating the Internet, because it's administered primarily in the U.S. Critics want to take some of that control away. However, Ambassador Donahoe says often, that's a ploy by governments who want to censor.

DONAHOE: The reason that resolution outcome today was so important is that it almost established the human rights principals as the foundation for all other conversations in international fora on the Internet.

SYDELL: But Donahoe says it isn't just China or repressive Arab regimes that fear the Internet. She says even the United States sometimes struggles with its openness, whether it be the release of documents by WikiLeaks or downloading of illegal music files. What the new resolution does is open a conversation that's likely to take decades to resolve.

Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.