Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression

I will be participating in a workshop session at the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius this September on the 14th. The title of our paper and the session is Freedom of Connection — Freedom of Expression. Information about the session is available online from the IGF and the paper is posted on SSRN at

Comments on the report would be greatly appreciated, as the authors plan to revise in light of discussion at Vilnius.

A summary of the full report follows:

Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet*

by William H. Dutton, Anna Dopatka, Michael Hills, Ginette Law, and Victoria Nash, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

*The authors thank UNESCO’s Division for Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace for supporting the drafting of this report. We received additional support of the Fifth Estate Project at the OII, through gifts from June Klein, Electronic-Boardroom TMV®. We owe special thanks to UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu, for her comments and guidance.

Executive Summary

Over the first decade of the 21st Century, the Internet and its convergence with mobile communications has enabled greater access to information and communication resources. In 2010, nearly 2 billion people worldwide – over one-quarter of the world’s population – use the Internet. However, during the same period, defenders of digital rights have raised growing concerns over how legal and regulatory trends might be constraining online freedom of expression. Anecdotal accounts of the arrests of bloggers, the filtering of content, and the disconnection of users have sparked these concerns. However, they are reinforced by more systematic studies that provide empirical evidence of encroachments on freedom of expression, such as through the increased use of content filtering.

This report provides a new perspective on the social and political dynamics behind these threats to expression. It develops a conceptual framework on the ‘ecology of freedom of expression’ for discussing the broad context of policy and practice that should be taken into consideration in discussions of this issue. This framework structures an original synthesis of empirical research and case studies of selected technical, legal and regulatory trends. These include developments in six inter-related arenas that focus on:

  1. technical initiatives, related to connection and disconnection, such as content filtering;
  2. digital rights, including those tied directly to freedom of expression and  censorship, but also indirectly, through freedom of information, and privacy and data protection;
  3. industrial policy and regulation, including copyright and intellectual property, industrial strategies, and ICTs for development;
  4. users, such as focused on fraud, child protection, decency, libel and control of hate speech;
  5. network policy and practices, including standards, such as around identity, and regulation of Internet Service Providers; and
  6. security, ranging from controlling spam and viruses to protecting national security.

By placing developments in these arenas into a broad ecology of choices, it is more apparent how freedom can be eroded unintentionally as various actors strategically pursue a more diverse array of objectives. The findings reinforce the significance of concerns over freedom of expression and connection, while acknowledging countervailing trends and the open future of technology, policy and practice. Freedom of expression is not an inevitable outcome of technological innovation. It can be diminished or reinforced by the design of technologies, policies and practices – sometimes far removed from freedom of expression. This synthesis points out the need to focus systematic research on this wider ecology shaping the future

Comments are most welcome