Close co-operation between various stakeholders can make sure that human rights are taken into account while addressing the challenges on digital platforms, noted Georgette Gagnon, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She was speaking at the opening session of the  ‘International Conference on Social Media: Challenges and Ways to Promote Freedoms and Protect Activists’ organised by National Human Rights Committee yesterday.
“Human rights law applied offline (outside the Internet) is also applicable to the online content. Close co-operation between states, private actors, civil society and national human rights institutions can ensure that human rights are taken into account when addressing challenges to the regulation of communications across the multiple digital platforms,” the UN official explained.
Gagnon noted that restrictions on social media platforms and the arrest and torture of those expressing dissenting views online are destroying the trust that should exist between people and their governments.
“The Internet, which has become a means of obtaining information and undertaking many different activities such as mobilising support, organisation and protest, has raised other concerns about the abuse of digital platforms, including incitement to hatred and violence against individuals, organisations and societies,” she observed.
“Accepting dissenting views can unlock a new and constructive consensus for society. Governments creating space for  freedom of expression, including criticism and demands for reform to all voices can contribute to positive change. The imposition of restrictions on social media platforms, the arrest and sometimes torture or worse of those who express dissenting views online are profoundly destructive for trust,” she highlighted.
According to the official, while many countries in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere in the world are witnessing popular protests, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights considers dialogue an urgent necessity to meet popular and legitimate demands for reform.
Gagnon condemned many countries’ ban and heavy interference in the work of journalists and human rights defenders, stressing that freedom of expression, thought, assembly and association, as well as the right to privacy, are essential elements for strengthening democratic societies and achieving development, peace and security.
“When we look at how social media is changing civic space, we should recall the range of legal standards that already exist around the world regulating what can and what cannot be said. Universal freedoms of expression, thought, assembly and association as well as the right to privacy are central for consolidating democratic societies and to securing development peace and security,” she pointed out.
She emphasised that  online access is vital for civic space all over the world.  She maintained that any breakdown in communications services can have a devastating effect, including Internet blackout, which severely restricts the ability of societies to communicate, access and share information. Blocking Internet is a disproportionate measure that does not conform to the scope of permissible restrictions on freedom of expression, as stipulated in international human rights law.
She said that private companies also have a primary responsibility in case of shutdown of  telecommunications services “Governments may order the disruption of telecommunications services, but it is the companies that manage networks or regulate online data traffic that actually implement most of these measures. It is expected that companies explore all legal options for challenging these requests,” she stated.
The continued use of mass and targeted disruption of communications is alarming. State sponsored network disruptions can silence political opposition, limit peaceful protests, prevent human rights defenders from documenting abuses and impact on civil society’s vital contributions to public accountability,” added the UN official.