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Protecting our right to online freedoms



It’s 1 April 2020 and as I write my kids, 5 and 7, are sound asleep in our home in the outskirts of Florence, Italy, while the official figure of persons infected with coronavirus in the country has reached over 100,000. The whole country, including our family is under lock-down. Schools are closed. We can only leave our house with a ‘self-declaration’ form, undersigning that we are moving only to the permissible designated places and the police can stop and question us at any time.

Children drawing on door around the words tutto andra bene (Marta Achler)

Homework is done through YouTube channels set up by teachers, making films to connect with school and watching online messages from kindergarten friends who miss each other. We work remotely, in shifts, to keep things going.

But then, there was this highlight: an online activity passed around through WhatsApp school groups. Kids were asked to draw or paint rainbows and put them in their windows for others to see in person and share on-line. The point is to send a message and create an online connection among an isolated community in order to lift the spirits. The message: ‘tutto andrà bene’, meaning ‘everything will be OK’. A message of hope in these sad and confusing times for children, if not for us all.

And this led me to a realisation — the internet and the online spaces are indeed becoming our ‘lifeline’ for expression and assembly. And to an appeal, this lifeline is under threat and deserves much more protection than it currently has under international law. We now have an immediate opportunity to remedy that.

We became aware of the spread of the COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. Importantly though, it also began with a grave violation of the right to freedom of expression, of information and of assembly — online. 

Dr Ai Fen, in a recent interview with The Guardian, explained how on 30th December last year she received test results of a patient with ‘SARS - Coronavirus’ and shared this with her doctor friend. Soon, the results and news of the virus were circulating through online chats (’WeChat’) used by the medical community in Wuhan to gather and share information, including the now deceased whistle-blower Dr Li Wenliang. According to reports, Dr Ai was summoned by the hospital administration to ‘stop spreading rumours about a virus’ and could resort only to warning her staff to wear protective gear. Dr Li Wenliag was also coerced into silence after he took to social media to warn about the virus. Online censorship was imposed in the face of a serious and life-threatening global public health emergency, the right to information which could preserve the right to life, was put on the backburner.


'The world is no longer connected only through physical gatherings of people across oceans and borders. We are connected and gather online, for a variety of purposes, the essence of assembly.'


It was this disproportional reaction to online activity of the Chinese medical community striving to inform the public where the government failed to do so, that kick-started the spread of the coronavirus. In conjunction with the physical spread coming from the market in Wuhan. Sure, the virus may have spread anyway, but preventive and protective measures could have been deployed earlier.

What can we learn from this example where restrictions of freedoms in one country impact not only the local people, but also the global community? What standards and measures should we put in place to prevent this in the future and hold those responsible to account?

The online world is one of the crucial spaces where these questions need to be answered. But our rights to exercise expression, information, assembly and association online are under threat and insufficiently protected. 

Today, the online space is indeed the only place in which I can gather with the people I wish to be with as each day brings further measures of isolation and restrictions (Greta Thunberg, in view of the global pandemic, has taken her climate protest online with the hashtag #climatestrikeonline). We use hashtags, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp to gather and create online actions, such as that done by my very own children- to connect and spread the message. We work online and conduct conferences online.

Yet, international standards and bodies currently fail to fully protect this space. If COVID-19 does not give testimony just how much protection is lacking in what today is the critical available space to express and assemble, and the only one in case of lockdown, then what will? It did not start with the market in Wuhan only, please recall, it started also in conjunction with a violation of the rights of expression, information and assembly in this very space.

Our new human rights space online deserves, and desperately requires, protection. Internet intermediaries with the State already control, and restrict our rights online, the messages we wish to send and the way we want to gather. In concert, they took down the vital information about the new virus in early December, and here we are.

Content is also controlled by internet intermediaries, who apply their own, internally drafted rules on what we may or may not say and how we can appeal blocking or takedown of information. This in addition to some governments who shut down or filter the Internet. That approach clearly does not suffice.

So what if, as the COVID-19 case shows, content is deleted, by a third party based on an algorithm or unknown criteria, or perhaps in collusion with the demands of a repressive government, for the sake of profit. The rights we dearly hold become illusory, dead in the water studies and case examples have already shown that the goals of commercial operators that are the internet intermediaries, do not always coincide with the goals of activists using, for instance, social networks for expression, assembly and association. The suppression of the COVID 19 outbreak is another alarming example of the same.

We have an immediate opportunity to strengthen standards for online freedoms. The UN Human Rights Committee is currently revising standards that regulate assemblies. The European Union is developing a digital policy for its members States that would consider greater responsibility on internet intermediaries. The world is no longer connected only through physical gatherings of people across oceans and borders. We are connected and gather online, for a variety of purposes, the essence of assembly.

This online space and our gathering online must therefore be protected, in full. The European and global bodies must do so through an elevation of our online gatherings and other online freedoms to the same standards of respect, protection and facilitation as those we conduct in physical spaces. If this task is taken up seriously, ‘tutto andrà bene’ — everything will be OK.


Marta Achler LLB/MA (Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia), LLM (European University Institute, Florence, Italy), PhD candidate, has been practicing as a lawyer in the field of international law and international human rights law for over 17 years. Achler also worked in the private law field, prior to taking on her assignments with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, where she held the post of Chief of the Legislative Support Unit in the Democratization Department and recently, the Deputy Head of the Democratization Department. She now works with the European Centre for Not for Profit Law as a Senior Legal Advisor. Her areas of expertise are, human rights, constitutional law and democratic law-making in particular. Achler is also a PhD candidate at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, researching in the field of human rights and new technologies. 

Full version of blog available here. Updated since original publication on 13 March, 2020.

Main image: Children drawing on door around the words 'tutto andrá bene' (Marta Achler)


Topic tags: Marta Achler, COVID-19, international law, human rights, online gatherings



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Existing comments

“….examples have already shown that the goals of commercial operators that are the internet intermediaries, do not always coincide with the goals of activists using, for instance, social networks for expression, assembly and association. The suppression of the COVID 19 outbreak is another alarming example of the same.” The Western suppression of topics fashionably declared to be ‘hate speech’ or (noun)phobia is not “another alarming example of the same.” Man does not live by bread alone. Authoritarian China’s suppression of Internet-mediated information concerning SARS-CoV2 produces a consequence that is limited because of the visible physicality of its ‘bread’ subject matter, whereas its suppression of internet-mediated information about values contrary to the pleasure of the Communist Party attacks the spiritual health of the Chinese people and is more the insidious for consequences made unlimited by invisibility. The same invisible poisoning of spiritual culture, in the garment of political correctness concerning Islam, gender, sexuality and, especially, the sovereignty of reproductive choice, appears in the West.

roy chen yee | 17 April 2020  

The hopeful line, "All will be well . . .", delivered regularly in various forms by celebrities on commercial television in these testing days is a welcome gesture, though it acknowledges none of the derivation and spiritual or theological underpinning of Christian mystic Julian of Norwich's original, believed to have been conveyed verbatim to her in a revelation received from Christ. Her recourse in trials that included the Black Death and the Peasants' War was a deeper faith in Christ. Juliana's experiences are recorded in her autobiographical work, "Revelations of Divine Love", and her influence is evident in writers such as TS Eliot, Denise Levertov and Iris Murdoch.

John RD | 20 April 2020  

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