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Report on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association: The Digital Age (A/HRC/41/41)


Published:17 May 2019
Author: Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
Presented: To the Human Rights Council Forty-first session. 24 June–12 July 2019
Link: A/HRC/41/41

Background

Over the past decade, States have used technology to silence, surveil and harass dissidents, political opposition, human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and to manipulate public opinion. Governments are ordering Internet shutdowns more frequently, as well as blocking websites and platforms ahead of critical democratic moments such as elections and protests. A surge in legislation and policies aimed at combating cybercrime has also opened the door to punishing and surveilling activists and protesters in many countries around the world. While the role that technology can play in promoting terrorism, inciting violence and manipulating elections is a genuine and serious global concern, such threats are often used as a pretext to push back against the new digital civil society.

While the digital age has opened new space for the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, it has also brought a range of new threats and risks to these fundamental rights. Severe legal restrictions, and government practices in digital surveillance, for example, risk eliminating the space in which civil society can promote or defend collectively a field of mutual interest. Digital technology companies' actions and inaction have exacerbated these risks or created complex new challenges for individuals and organizations that seek to exercise assembly and association rights online and offline. These challenges are likely to intensify in an increasingly digital future.

Summary

In this report, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, aims at presenting an initial overview of the most pressing challenges, which will be further addressed in future reports and communications. The report focuses on the opportunities and challenges facing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital age, and seeks to provide guidance on how to best preserve and maximize these opportunities and address risks.

The opportunities and threats that digital technologies present to the exercise of freedom of assembly and of association will increase as emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, develop and become more common. Building on reports authored by other relevant special procedure mandate holders, the Special Rapporteur seeks in the present report to provide guidance on how to best preserve and maximize the opportunities that these technologies bring while addressing their risks.

International law protects the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, whether exercised in person, through technologies of today, or through technologies that will be invented in the future. This report highlights, that existing international human rights norms and principles should not only dictate State conduct, but also be the framework that guides digital technology companies' design, control and governance of digital technologies.

The report concludes that States should ensure that the rights of peaceful assembly and association are respected, protected and implemented in national legal frameworks, policies and practices, in accordance with international law. Digital technology companies must commit to respecting freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and carry out due diligence to ensure that they do not cause, contribute to or become complicit in violation of these rights. In fulfilling their respective responsibilities, States and digital technology companies should comply with well-established principles of nondiscrimination, pluralism of views, transparency, multi-stakeholder participation, and access to justice.