Digital security and the Right to Freedom of expression (III)
“We must not be confused about what freedom is. Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men (and Women!) to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment”.
Eleanor Roosevelt, The Struggle for Human Rights, 1948
Is freedom of expression under Mass Surveillance? (Figure 1).
“How do you express yourself online?” is being asked to the students of Amnesty International training called “Digital Security and Human Rights”. Freedom of expression on the digital world not only concerns to what every individual share online but also the accessibility of data, opinions or ideas searched –and provided form different sources- from the Internet. For instance, there must be media variety, with alternative narratives and different points of view, not only the ones that are running according to the current authorities.
Everybody, without any kind of discrimination, is able to express themselves using numberless ways –online and offline. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a document that inheres in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is ensuring –among other actors such as the African Court of Human and People’s Rights or UN Special Rapporteur- freedom of expression right reproduced in the Article 19:
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. The exercise […] carries with it special duties and responsibilities. […]
Infographic about The Right to Freedom of Expression and Digital Security, from Amnesty International (Figure 2).
Can freedom of expression be restricted online?
Despite Article 19, mentioned in the previous paragraph, the question if freedom of expression can be restricted online is an open debate. Sometimes opinions are soundly offensive against the government or public figures. In that case, the law has to take a position, although restrictions would have to be proportional. Every country policy must “respect, protect and fulfill the right to freedom of expression” (source: Amnesty International).
Furthermore, in the digital world, freedom of expression right is strongly connected with the right of privacy: when people know that is being observed behavior changes, sometimes as a consequence of government sanctions. Being aware of digital security can be a potential tool to be less over controlled and under mass surveillance -but not always is enough.
Mass surveillance in the contemporary world
On the whole, how can “mass surveillance” be defined? In agreement to Amnesty International, mass surveillance “is the monitoring of communications and activities of a large portion, even entirely, of a population without enough evidence of wrongdoing”. Nowadays is possible to affirm that Mass surveillance is affecting everybody; furthermore, geographical borders do not limit it because of Internet characteristics.
Global attitudes to Mass Surveillance (figure 3)
There are some companies being exclusively dedicated to mass surveillance. This is the case of The Five Eyes, an intelligence agency that connects five states (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zeland) or the National Security Agency –that is known because of “identifying loopholes in laws and constitutions that permit authorities to commit acts of mass surveillance that are not explicitly outlawed by existing legislation” (source: Amnesty International).
Amnesty international is pointing out that there are some criteria for specific cases where targeted surveillance is justified. The organization list some items to understand which kind of surveillance can work in accordance with human rights:
– It must be targeted surveillance, which means to limit it to a specific group or individual.
– It must be based on a reasonable suspicion
– It must have a legitimate aim, for instance, the investigation of a crime.
– It has to respect the law and follow parliamentary procedures.
– It must be proportionate to give legitimization to the aim.
– It must be non-discriminatory, following the human rights core.
Who is in risk? By way of example, let’s talk about Befeqadu Hailu.
Screen Shoot of an add from Duckduckgo (figure 4)
Every individual should take some steps to be protected from mass surveillance –for example, using “duckduckgo” as a searcher on the Internet. However, is possible to affirm that activists, journalists or public figures are more in risk to be under surveillance. Advances in technology, even though have a huge positive impact in communication and information fields, are being used for governments to follow unjustified surveillance and arbitrary detentions.
By way of example, there is the case of Befeqadu Hailu; he is an award-winning Ethiopian activist, writer, and blogger who has been arrested several times, mainly because of claiming freedom of expression right. He is a member of the Zone 9 bloggers group, that has the slogan “We blog because we care”. The blog is running by some activists and they designate the whole county as “Zone 9” due to the lack of democratic freedom in Ethiopia (helpsetthemfree.org, 2018). Their posts are related to human rights promotion and government accountability.
The Ethiopian activist, Befeqadu, wrote the next words, while in prison, as an answer to the question “what do you think is your crime?”: “after two years of writing and working to engage citizens in political debate, we have been apprehended and investigated […]. No matter what, boundaries exist in this country. People who write about Ethiopia’s political reality will face the threat of incarceration as long as they live here” (Egbunike, N., 2015).
Illustration of Befeqadu Haliu, taking as a reference to his speech with Amnesty International (figure 5)
Defending freedom of expression: everybody’s responsibility.
“We could have the most responsible government in the world today,” says Edward Snowde, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who revealed numerous global surveillance programs –according to Wikipedia. “But tomorrow there could be a change.” continues Snowde. Private information has to be protected, even though “there is nothing to hide”. Perhaps a bad use of this data can point to journalists, activists or minorities and crack down free speech.
There are some success stories on the struggle against mass surveillance. For instance, there was the Amnesty International campaign #unfollowme in the USA, in which more than 100,000 people signed to tell governments to stop mass surveillance. Moreover, there are the CPJ International Press Freedom Awards that give relevance to this who are defending press freedom in defiance of the threats, attacks or even imprisonment. There is hope but it is important to be aware and take a position to defend freedom of expression right.
To read more about:
This article is written after taking the online course “Digital Security and Human Rights”, from
“Learn how to protect yourself online and promote digital security”.
“12 inspiring human rights activists to follow in 2018” form
“In a ‘difficult year’ for freedom of expression, AI and digital security could help” from:
“Success Story: Turning the Tide Against Online Spying” from
“Bangladesh: New Digital Security Act is an attack on freedom of expression” from
“Campaign: #unfollowme” from
To keep watching:
“Ban Mass Surveillance” published by Amnesty International. From
Amnesty International (2019, January 28th). Digital Security and Human Rights online course.
Grant, S., & Mathur, A. (2017, September 15). 6 Human Rights Speeches That Changed The World. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from
Helpsetthemefree.org (2018). Befeqadu Haliu. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from
Egbunike, Nwachukwu. (2015, June 05). Befeqadu Haliu: An Ethiopian Writer Who Refused to Remain Silent. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from