Recent attempts by governments to limit internet access as a way to counter popular uprisings in the Arab world have threatened freedom of expression online.
Human rights for the digital age have been promoted by a US-hosted panel discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, bringing together representatives of Google, Facebook, and Access, a civil society group defending digital freedom.
While technology can enhance free speech, it is also creating new risks and challenges, Michael Posner, US assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, told the panel.
"When people went out into the streets in [Cairo's] Tahrir Square carrying a cell phone and they were arrested by state security, the cell phones contained the addresses of their friends and colleagues. When people go on the internet in China and other countries and post blogs, post information, talk to their friends, there is a government that is very mindful of that activity. Or in Iran. Or in many many other countries, frankly," he said.
"How do we deal with the personal privacy? How do we protect human rights advocates and others who dissent from government? What are the ways in which they can help protect themselves?"
"I think part of our challenge today is not just to extol the virtues of technology, but to understand the challenges that it brings and how to mitigate those challenges."
'Changed the world'
During the revolution in Egypt, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter were used by activists to mobilise protesters. In an attempt to suppress the opposition, the government ordered a complete shutdown of the internet during parts of the 18-day uprising.
However, illustrating how authorities are often one step behind the tech-savvy, Egyptians still managed to send messages on Twitter after Google and the micro-blogging site set up a service enabling people to leave a voicemail using a telephone and post it to #egypt on Twitter.
Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access, said new communication technologies have changed the world "forever" as authorities have lost their traditional tools to control uncomfortable elements of opposition.
"While social media has not been the cause of the recent tide of democratic uprisings, it has changed the nature of the cat-and-mouse game between leaders and those who would resist them," he told the panel at the UN.
"The internet generation is not amenable to 'governance' that seeks to create a singular 'official' narrative of a nation's history and future. Social media is designed to highlight what's popular, to represent the pulse of a people, and armed with this information, it is not hard for people who were previously never politically active, to see the growing cracks in a government."
In order to get grassroots perspectives into the discussion, Access invited web users to express what issues they felt were important in the debate over internet freedom in a survey on the group's website. About 6,000 people from more 100 countries filled it out.
"We were astounded by the response. It demonstrates very clearly how important the internet is, and how committed people are to ensuring that it remains an open, secure space which protects the rights to freedom of information and expression," Solomon said.
Regarding the threats to internet freedom, stopping governments from having the power to turn off the internet was at the top of respondents' list, with 93% saying this was extremely important. Most respondents (77%) also said it was extremely important that we protect human rights defenders from being attacked online, followed closely by ending internet censorship (74%).
Richard Allan, Facebook’s Director of Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said the site had faced interference during the protests in Tunisia which led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"On January 3 of this year we received reports that accounts had been illegally accessed in Tunisia on our service. According to these reports the access had been commissioned by agents of the government in order to steal passwords and then access the personal information in those accounts," he said.
Peter Barron, Northern Europe Director of External Relations at Google, said that while internet usage is steadily increasing, there is similar growth in how governments limit and control freedom of speech.
"We've seen a growing trend there from four governments back in 2002 who intervened to block the Internet and censor the internet, to around 40 today. So, a very, very worrying sign," he said.
"I think really our key message today is to say that we're by no means certain on which side this is going to fall. Everything is in play here. It really falls to governments, to NGOs and to companies themselves to work together to bring a good outcome in these areas."
A full transcript of the panel discussion, which was held on March 4 in parallel with the 16th session of the UN Human Rights Council, is available on the website of the US mission to the UN mission Geneva.