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Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age: Effective Research, Policy Formation & the Development of Regulatory Frameworks in South Asia

by Jyoti Panday last modified Apr 12, 2015 03:53 AM
The Centre for Internet & Society cordially invites you to a panel discussion on Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age. The event organized by Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Observer Research Foundation and the Centre for Internet and Society will be held at Observer Research Foundation on April 21, 2015 from 11.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.

Event details


Apr 21, 2015
from 11:00 AM to 06:00 PM


Conference Room, Observer Research Foundation, 20 Rouse Avenue Institutional Area, New Delhi - 110002

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The discussion will highlight the challenges in promoting and strengthening online freedom of expression and evaluating the application of existing regulatory frameworks in South Asia. Click to view the invite.

International Frameworks and Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression-an important fundamental right in itself, is also critical for defending and upholding other freedoms and rights. We exercise this right in our day-to-day lives, through the exchange of ideas, opinions and information. Understanding the means and structures of communication, and the regulation of environments that facilitate such exchange therefore become crucial for those seeking to realize freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of both theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UDHR holds that " everyone 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" . The ICCPR holds that, " everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice".

Freedom of expression has also been enshrined in regional conventions and charters, for example the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the American Convention on Human Rights4, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights ("Banjul Charter") .

The former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, highlighted in his 2013 report report that these frameworks are applicable to actions that take place online.6 While there may be no disagreements on freedom of expression as a legal right, it is important to bear in mind that it is not a non-derogable right, and may therefore be limited subject to safeguards indicated, for example, in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR.

While there may be limitations are placed on the exercise of freedom of expression, there is limited clarity on when and how freedom of expression can be legitimately circumscribed. There have been attempts by civil society groups to articulate more clearly the specific conditions when freedom of expression may be derogated, most notably the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("Siracusa Principles" ), and the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information ("Johannesburg Principles").

Freedom of Expression and Communications

Over the years, the norms and standards required for freedom of expression in the traditional media world have received much attention. When regulating communication, some restrictions upon freedom of expression have been regarded necessary and are enforceable by national or international courts. Such restrictions have been defined in international human rights laws and cover issues such as defamation, incitement to violence and hate speech. While these restrictions are not affected by the introduction of new means of communication, the proliferation of digital communications does warrant the recognition that there are new forms of censorship, unsettled questions of jurisdiction, and the need to develop new norms and standards that can keep pace with the myriad forms of expression and information sharing.

Communication in the digital age has led to the evolution of the Internet as a medium that has revolutionised largely local capacity for communication into a worldwide phenomenon that encompasses everything from personal one-to-one emails, social networks and reaching out to large audiences globally. The proliferation of digital technologies has not only fostered unprecedented access to information; the very environment stands transformed by the introduction of new kinds of information from voice, sound, image, text and code, that are accessible on a range of devices and across several types of technologies.

These networks and services democratized communication by lowering barriers to access and creating new space for publishing and peer-to-peer collaboration. Bypassing traditional gatekeepers of other forms of media, users can take on the role of writers, broadcasters or publishers on the Internet thus creating limitless possibilities for producing, sharing and exchanging all kinds of content. From this view, the Internet has sprung up as a globally accessible means of communication that is free from traditional restraints on free speech and expression. However, there are other unintended consequences that the Internet has had on both forms of power and control in the regulation of content, as online content has become increasingly contested, enclosed in a nationalized sphere challenging the free flow of information and freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression in South Asia

As a network of networks, the internet has no overarching jurisdiction and with no single entity governing the totality of the internet, there exists a jurisdictional vacuum over content on the web. Further, there are no means of regulating content internationally or even a broad consensus on the norms that should be applied for restricting freedom of expression either on traditional or modern media. This has led to adverse consequences such as states adopting arbitrary actions and standards or companies exercising private censorship with content online.

South Asia has an important role in global development, with its share of the world's largest working-age population, a quarter of the world's middle-class consumers, the largest number of poor and undernourished in the world, and several fragile states of global geopolitical importance. With inclusive growth, South Asia has the potential to change the global order and communications and technology continue to play a critical role in realising the region's potential. Unfortunately, the history of colonial rule, authoritarian governments and a turbulent geo-political landscape have resulted in a tendency to over-regulate speech. Governments have construed the advent of the Internet as a challenge to their authority and their anxiousness to restrict use of the medium by citizens has resulted in often regressive and sometimes draconian laws such as Myanmar's Electronic Transactions Law, India's IT Act and Pakistan's Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.

As the Internet expands and provides greater access, it also places censorship and surveillance capacities in the hands of states and corporations. It is therefore crucial that there exist strong protections of the right to freedom of expression that balance state powers and citizen rights. While the Internet has thrown up its own set of challenges such as hate speech, the verbal online abuse of women and the use of the Internet to spread rumours of violence, the regulation of content is a question that is far from being settled and needs our urgent attention. What role can and should the law play? When is it justified for the government to intervene? What can be expected from intermediaries, such as social networks and ISPs? And what can users do to protect the right to free speech - their own and that of others?

Balancing freedom of expression with other rights is further complicated by the challenges of fast paced and changing regulatory environment. By highlighting these challenges and questioning the application of existing frameworks we aim to contribute to further promoting and strengthening the right to freedom of expression, in India and beyond.

Introduction to panel and conference:

This is the context in which the Centre for Internet and Society, the Observer Research Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania's Internet Policy Observatory, and the Programme for Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University are coming together to organise an event under the title 'Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age'. The event is a discussion and deliberation on 'Effective Research, Policy Formation, & the Development of Regulatory Frameworks in South Asia', aimed at bringing together policymakers, researchers, experts and civil society in discussing some of the most crucial issues in this space. The event would seek to look at past experiences, look at current realities and look ahead to how things could be made better in the South Asian context. The program agenda includes

Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age'
Effective Research, Policy Formation, & the Development of Regulatory Frameworks in South Asia

Program Agenda and Article Submission Tracks

Learnings from the past

Current Realities

Looking ahead

11:00 - 1:00

1:00 - 2:00

2:00 - 4:00

4:00- 4:15


Welcome and Introductions

Welcome and Introductions

Welcome and Introductions

Overview of existing policies and regulatory models and their impact on FoEx online including the implementation of these models across South Asia


How FoEx is being enabled online in different jurisdications and sectors of society across South Asia

Coffee break

Challenges associated with formulating a standard, harmonized, and adaptable regulation that is applicable to multiple digital platforms, both at the national and international level and possible solutions

FoEx as defined in jurisdictions across South Asia and as compared to international standards

Ways in which FoEx is, or may be, curtailed online

Ways forward to bridge existing gaps between policy formation and policy implementation with respect to FOEX online

Emerging technologies, markets, services and platforms and how they have shaped FoEx across South Asia

Online FoEx and the present need to balance it against other digital rights in jurisdictions across South Asia

Exploration of emerging regulatory questions such as whether online speech should be regulated in the same manner as offline speech or, if there are there are particular forms of online speech that are difficult to regulate such as defamation, hate speech, if there are effective models of remedy for violation of FOEX online

Impact of challenges on FoEx online such as barriers of entry, access, accessibility, cost, liability, policies and enforcement mechanisms differing across platforms across South Asia

The impact of jurisdiction, multi-national platforms, and domestic regulation on FOEX online

Ways in which civil society can impact and influence the development and implementation of Internet regulation

Research techniques that have been applied to the issue and have been effective in different political contexts across South Asia

Role and responsibility of intermediaries in regulating online speech as per governmental standards via content policies, terms of service, and other practices across South Asia

Exploration of the future role and interplay of technology and policy in enabling FOEX online




About the Organisers

The Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania-has created the Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) to research the dynamic technological and political contexts in which these Internet governance debates take place. The IPO serves as a platform for informing relevant communities of activists, academics, and policy makers, and for displaying collected data and analysis. The Observatory encourages and sponsors research and studies ongoing events, key decisions and proposals, on Internet policy. The IPO seeks to deepen understanding of the evolution of mechanisms and processes that affect domestic Internet policies in key jurisdictions and the legal, political, economic, international and social factors that influence the implementation, or non-implementation, of such policies.The IPO also seeks to understand the relationship between national efforts and international policy formations and the role of civil society in domestic Internet policy processes and control.

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS)-is a non-profit research organization working to explore, understand and affect the shape and form of the Internet and its relationship with the political, cultural, and social milieu of our times. CIS' multidisciplinary research, intervention and collaboration engages with policy issues relating to freedom of expression, privacy, accessibility for persons with disabilities, access to knowledge and IPR reform, openness (including open government data, free/open source software, open standards, open access to scholarly literature, open educational resources, and open video). CIS also engages in academic research on digital natives and digital humanities.

The Observer Research Foundation (ORF)- is India's premier independent public policy think tank and is engaged in developing and discussing policy alternatives on a wide range of issues of national and international significance. The fundamental objective of ORF is to influence the formulation of policies for building a strong and prosperous India in a globalised world. It hosts India's largest annual cyber conference - CyFy: the India Conference on Cyber Security and Internet Governance.