Online expression versus international security

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Andrea Calderaro

Andrea Calderaro, research assistant, Centre for Media Pluralism

Andrea Calderaro, research associate at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom: Between freedom of expression and security, to protect the first is usually the best way of ensuring the latter

Freedom of expression is an unquestionable human right and a key characteristic of democracy. The development of digital media has been welcomed as a great opportunity to strengthen freedom of expression as it facilitates the way people access information and communicate to broader audiences.

However, the debate is more complex and recent political events provide contrasting elements to this debate. For example, the case of the anti-Islamic video ‘Innocence of Muslims’ published on YouTube recently generated violent protest in several countries, increasing the already existing concerns about how the freedom of expression facilitated by new media may actually be a threat to international security.

We are aware that the opinions and materials circulating online cross political systems, regulations, religions and cultures, with the risk that information that is totally legitimate in one context might be rather controversial elsewhere.

However, it will be a serious risk for freedom of expression if the call for regulating online information is confused with issues closer to conventional debates on cyber security.

Cyber security instruments are traditionally developed to prevent the risk of cyber warfare. Too often in the name of cyber security, countries apply restrictions aimed at censoring information on the internet, track activities of journalist and actors of civil society and limit the freedom to circulate information.

As stressed by UNESCO’s 2011 report, ‘Freedom of expression: Freedom of connection’, many instruments used in the name of cyber security are abused in order to restrict freedom of expression instead of protecting it. The UNESCO report highlights that measures intended to enhance cyber security may impose controversial restrictions, and therefore pose a threat to human rights.

The equilibrium between freedom of expression and respect for diversity is challenging and certainly not determined by new media. However, the idea of implementing cyber security regulations in order to protect freedom of expression is not convincing and calls for careful monitoring.

Overall, we welcome the internet for its great potential to facilitate the production of grassroots information, allow people to spread their opinions and to generate debate among a broader international audience across borders and regions. Reducing this opportunity in the name of security would mean to make the concept freedom of expression relative and expose it to risky and uncertain approaches.

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