From the Executive Summary:
The rights to freedom of speech and expression are considered to be at the heart of international human rights law protections. In practice, however, this right has frequently been in tension with other rights protected by human rights law, such as the right to reputation and the right against discrimination. Indeed, in recognition of the dangers of untrammeled freedom, international human rights law also provides for limitations on the exercise of these rights. With the rise of the internet, laws surrounding freedom of speech and expression have had to confront new ambiguities, controversies, and tensions. While previous revolutions in transmission such as the printing press have fundamentally impacted speech and association in the past, the reach, velocity, immediacy, anonymized and decentralized nature of information transmitted on the internet raises unique free speech and law enforcement challenges.
The proliferation of online communication and social media activity as dominant modes of expression necessitate an examination of that new developments in international human rights law in four broad areas: (1) online manifestations of support for conduct by violent extremist organizations; (2) misinformation and fake news; (3) online defamation; and (4) cyber harassment and bullying. Our research analyzes whether and the extent to which online activities in these four key areas are: (1) protected by international human rights law, as analyzed in jurisprudence; (2) treated as crimes under domestic criminal law; and (3) banned under selected content policies of leading social media companies. Accordingly, our observations draw from legal research on human rights treaties, past decisions by domestic and international courts, domestic legal codes, and other academic articles. This research was primarily restricted to source documents available online in English.
This report begins with an introductory chapter on the architecture of international human rights law on free expression and association, identifying the key conventions that enshrine these rights and interpretative guidance issued by international monitoring bodies and conferences of legal experts. We articulate the jurisprudential principles of freedom of expression common across our four subject matter areas. First, these freedoms apply to online activities as well as to the offline world. Second, in order for restrictions on speech or association not to violate international human rights law, the restriction must pass a three-part test. The restriction must (1) be prescribed by law, (2) pursue one of a specified list of legitimate aims, including but not limited to public order and safety, and (3) be necessary in a democratic society as well as proportionate.
The report next analyzes our four subject-matter areas: (1) violent extremist organizations (VEOs); (2) misinformation and fake news; (3) online defamation; and (4) cyber harassment and bullying. Each of these four chapters analyzes trends in international jurisprudence, national legislation, and social media content policies.