Report on the role of digital access providers

30 March 2017
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
To the HRC, 35th session


Threats to digital expression and Internet freedom are more pronounced than ever. Internet shutdowns have emerged as a popular means of information control. Government surveillance continues to intensify worldwide, jeopardizing the privacy and security of millions. Net neutrality - the long-held premise that all Internet data should be treated equally and without undue interference - has come under attack. In this increasingly hostile environment, what are the human rights responsibilities of the Information, Communications and Technology sector - particularly those actors that facilitate the provision of telecommunications and Internet access, and serve as gatekeepers of the digital infrastructure?

To address this question, the Special Rapporteur first examines the role of States in undermining freedom of expression online, and what their obligation to protect this fundamental right entails. The Special Rapporteur subsequently evaluates the role of digital access providers - not just telecommunications companies and Internet service providers, which have become synonymous with digital access, but also non-consumer facing actors like network equipment vendors, content delivery networks, and Internet exchange points. Drawing on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and best practices in the field, the Special Rapporteur proposes concrete steps that digital access providers should take to safeguard the freedom of expression of Internet users worldwide. 


The report’s key recommendations include:

To States and the Human Rights Council

  • The Human Rights Council, in its resolution 32/13, condemned unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and called upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures. This condemnation, which is critical to the Council’s promotion of human rights online, should be supplemented and specified. Intentional prevention or disruption of access includes any action that shuts down or renders ineffective access to telecommunications networks, mobile services, social media platforms and so forth. Future work of the Council that clarifies the rules that apply to digital access, as outlined in this report, would advance the right to freedom of opinion and expression online.
  • It is also critical for the Council and States to draw the connections between privacy interference and freedom of expression. To be sure, interferences with privacy must be assessed on their own merits under article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other norms of human rights law. But certain interferences — such as overbroad requests for user data and third party retention of such data — can have both near- and long-term deterrent effects on expression, and should be avoided as a matter of law and policy. At a minimum, States should ensure that surveillance is authorized by an independent, impartial and competent judicial authority certifying that the request is necessary and proportionate to protect a legitimate aim.
  • The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about reports of threats and intimidation of companies, their employees and their equipment and infrastructure. Also, the Council’s emphasis on the important role — and need for protection — of the private sector deserves consideration. States should review all activities to obtain network access to ensure that they are lawful, necessary and proportionate, paying particular attention to whether these activities are the least intrusive means for protecting a legitimate aim.
  • The protective role that States may exercise over the private sector can only go so far. They should not be promoting the economic gain of private entities over users’ rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Thus, States should prohibit attempts to assign priority to certain types of Internet content or applications over others for payment or other commercial benefits.
  • The intersection of State behaviour and corporate roles in the digital age remains somewhat new for many States. One profitable way forward, at both the international and domestic levels, would involve the development of national action plans on business and human rights in order to establish meaningful avenues for all categories of the digital access industry to identify and address their respective human rights impacts.

To private actors

  • For years now, individuals and companies within the digital access sector have understood that they play an essential role in the vast expansion of access to information and communications services. They are in a business in which the model for success should involve expanding access, efficiencies, diversity and transparency. They should take the principles identified in the present report as tools to strengthen their own roles in advancing users’ rights to freedom of expression. In this spirit, in addition to high-level policy commitments to human rights, the industry should allocate appropriate resources towards the fulfilment of these commitments, including due diligence, rights-oriented design and engineering choices, stakeholder engagement, strategies to prevent or mitigate human rights risks, transparency and effective remedies. In doing so, the design and implementation of corporate human rights accountability measures should draw on both internal and external expertise, and ensure meaningful input from customers and other affected rights holders, civil society and the human rights community.
  • This is not to say that private companies do not face pressures. They do. But when States request corporate involvement in censorship or surveillance, companies should seek to prevent or mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of their involvement to the maximum extent allowed by law. In any event, companies should take all necessary and lawful measures to ensure that they do not cause, contribute or become complicit in human rights abuses. Arrangements with corporate partners should be structured to ensure that all parties uphold their human rights responsibilities. Companies should also seek to build leverage in pre-existing business relationships to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts.

Supplementary material and submissions to the report:

Supplementary material, including summary of consultations, accompanying the report is available online as an addendum to the report.

Inputs received

Member States

NGOs and Civil Society Organizations




Special Procedures
​Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and opinion
​Recent thematic reports
​Contact information

Ms. Irene Khan
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneve 10, Switzerland

Fax: +41 22 917 9006

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