Fostering Freedom Online the Role of Internet Intermediaries, UNESCO (2014)

Document type

This report identifies freedom to express online as a right. It recognizes four principles as preconditions to internet ‘universality’: (1) human rights; (2) openness; (3) accessibility; and (4) multi-stakeholder participation (R-O-A-M) (Pages 9, 179). A part of the duty towards human rights includes the facilitation of the freedom of expression (Pages 15-18). The report identifies different types of intermediaries, using three major types as case studies – network providers, search engines and social networks (Page 22) to depict the impact of geopolitics, government regulation and company policies on user expression (Pages 58, 129). Using these case studies, it highlights difficulties faced by intermediaries in furthering free expression in jurisdictions where the governments are not inclined to implement policies towards internet universality. (Page 179)

For each case study, the report analyzes the company policies and practices of a few companies in different jurisdictions with respect to imposition of restrictions on free expression online. It elaborates upon: (a) the type of restrictions that the company may have to implement in the facilitation of free expression, including self-regulation by the company (Pages 62, 71,104, 107, 134, 136, 146), (b) the government attitude towards restriction of expression (Pages 66, 110, 138), (c) attitude of the company and the government towards data privacy (Pages 80, 119, 152), and (d) transparency policy and practice of the company and the government (Pages 70, 86, 123, 160).     

The report recognizes that intermediaries play an important role in both the facilitation of free speech and the restriction of free speech. Restrictions can be implemented either by the intermediary or by the government, and can be broadly categorized as restrictions at the network-level, at the platform level and related to privacy (Pages 23, 24). The network level restrictions concern internet service providers, web-hosting providers and domain registrars. Search engines and social networks are able to implement platform level restrictions by removing content, limiting access to it or deactivating user accounts. Unlike the above restrictions, privacy related restrictions may be self-imposed by users that choose to limit expression online from the fear of data collection and monitoring, data interception and data exposure arising from varying levels of controls by platforms. (Page 24)

The report deals extensively with the regulatory framework of each analyzed country. It also highlights the public commitment by intermediaries to human rights principles, such as the Global Network Initiative (Page 26), Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression (Pages 59, 96) and Privacy and transparency reports (Page 10, 27).

The report stresses the need for an improved legal framework globally that would allow companies to frame their policies and practices better than the current framework (Page 168). For example, the report suggests that the commitment by companies in various countries is proportional to the commitment and threshold of liability implemented by the respective government (Pages 95, 138, 166). Further, the report advocates increased quantitative and qualitative transparency (Page 187). It states the need for implementation of guidelines (Page 167) such as the GNI recommendations for transparency (Page 129, 187) and the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance (Page 188). The report proposes that the industry dialogue would benefit in credibility by adding a process to verify compliance by committing companies/governments (Pages 129, 193). The report stresses the need for human rights impact assessments by governments and companies (Page 189). With respect to self-regulatory mechanisms, intermediaries can assist by:

  1. Increased circulation of information
  2. Establishing remedies to users such as public reports and explanations regarding actions that may violate human rights
  3. Establishing their own grievance redressal channels. (Pages 92, 164, 189, 190)

The report also analyses gender biases on the internet and its impact on freedom of expression. (Pages 169-178)

The summary of this document is part of the report produced on the Stanford Law School Intermediary Liability and Human Rights Policy Practicum and is based on the work of Savni Dutt. The full report “The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ and Blocking Orders under the American Convention: Emerging Issues in Intermediary Liability and Human Rights”, can be accessed here.


Topic, claim, or defense
Freedom of Expression
Telecommunication (Includes Net Neutrality)
Document type
Issuing entity
Transnational Organization (Includes Bilateral Agreement)
Issues addressed
Procedural Protections for Users and Publishers