When Street Protests Go Digital: Freedom of Expression and Association Online

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When Street Protests Go Digital: Freedom of Expression and Association Online

The Internet has opened up interactions across the globe. In particular, it has made it possible to bring street protests online. Indeed, digital protests have gained increasing relevance since the virtual sit-in developed by the hacker group Electrohippies against the WTO in Seattle in 1999. In this incident, over 452,000 people flooded the WTO’s website and sent around 900 emails daily to make the site ineffective. Since then, hacktivism has become a new way to carry out street protests¬†in the digital sphere.

When talking about hacktivism, a question arises concerning the protection of human rights.

How to ensure the freedom of expression and to carry on peaceful protests online?

It has been claimed that human rights are the same online and offline. However, protecting them in the digital space can be quite challenging. This article offers an overview of what is hacktivism and human rights that come into play in digital street protests.

What is hacktivism?

Hacktivism is a form of digital political mobilisation. We can find several definitions of hacktivism or cyber activism. The most general ones refer to hacktivism as:

a form of political activism in which computer hacking skills are heavily employed against powerful commercial institutions and governments, among other targets, OR, the unification of political activism with computer hacking.

In the context of hacktivism, several human rights and freedoms come into play, especially the freedom of opinion and expression, along with the right to carry on peaceful street protests.

Legal Framework

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) restates the freedom of expression and association. Article 19 reads,

“[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

According to Article 20,

“[e]veryone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

UDHR has informed, among others, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), where Article 19 guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference. Article 21 of the ICCPR makes a case for recognising the right of peaceful assembly.

Relevant UN Human Rights Council Resolutions

In 2012, the Council adopted Resolution 20/8 on “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”. This resolution makes it very clear that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. It emphasises the freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice. This is in line with Article 19 of UDHR and Article 19 of ICCPR. This was the first of its kind resolution that served as an important step in the recognition of human rights in the digital world.

In 2018, the Council adopted by consensus a resolution on “The promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests”. This resolution extended the general understanding of an assembly as a physical gathering of people. It stated that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and association may apply to analogous interactions taking place online. Subsequently, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Human Rights Council’s position in its 2018 resolution. The General Assembly called upon all states to ensure that the same rights that individuals have offline are also fully protected online in accordance with human rights law.

European Union’s Stand

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provide freedom of expression and assembly. Article 10 of the ECHR covers

“the right to freedom of expression […] shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.

Subsequently, Article 11 of the ECHR articulates the freedom of assembly and association. It reads,

“[e]everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests”.

ECHR recognises that there can be reasonable restrictions on exercising these freedoms in accordance with law and as necessary in a democratic society. The reasons for these restrictions include national security, public safety, public order, morality, protection of health, prevention of crime, protection of the rights and freedoms of others, etc.

In 2005, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the “Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on human rights and the rule of law in the Information Society”. This declaration outlined that freedom of expression, information, and communication should be respected in a digital and non-digital environment. There should not be any restrictions except the ones given in Article 10 of the ECHR. Later, in 2008, the Committee issued a recommendation to member states on measures to promote respect for freedom of expression and information concerning internet filters. This Committee noted that intervention by member states that forbid access to specific content on the Internet may constitute a restriction on freedom of expression and access to information. Such a restriction in the online environment must fulfil the conditions in paragraph 2 of Article 10, ECHR.

Conclusion

As it emerges from our discussion, there is no express articulation of a right to protest online at the international and European levels. However, there is a robust discipline regarding freedom of expression and association. It is thus necessary to engage in a more serious debate on the different forms of hacktivism and their regulations, especially in the light of freedom of expression and association in the digital sphere.


Dr Federica Cristani, Head of the Centre for International Law at the Institute of International Relations, Prague, has contributed this article. She holds a PhD in international law and a degree in law from the University of Verona. Her main research interests include international economic law, the policies of sub-regional groups in Europe, and international law of cyber space. Since December 2022, she is a part of the CEI List of Individual External Experts to assist the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) for the SO2 Strategic Objective 2.1 (Current Cybersecurity Policy Frameworks).

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