Access to Internet and freedom to receive and impart information and ideas

The Internet has now become one of the principal means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom to receive and impart information and ideas, providing as it does essential tools for participation in activities and discussions concerning political issues and issues of general interest. Moreover, as to the importance of Internet sites in the exercise of freedom of expression, “in the light of its accessibility and its capacity to store and communicate vast amounts of information, the Internet plays an important role in enhancing the public’s access to news and facilitating the dissemination of information in general”. Let’s have look at one of the precedential decisions of The European Court on Human Right, concerning this issue.

19 January 2016 (judgment)

This case concerned a prisoner’s complaint about the authorities’ refusal to grant him access to three Internet websites, containing legal information, run by the State and by the Council of Europe. The applicant complained in particular that the ban under Estonian law on his accessing these specific websites had breached his right to receive information via the Internet and prevented him from carrying out legal research for court proceedings in which he was engaged.

The Court held that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Convention, finding that the refusal to grant the applicant access to Internet websites containing legal information had breached his right to receive information. The Court noted in particular that Contracting States are not obliged to grant prisoners access to Internet. It found, however, that if a State was willing to allow prisoners access, as was the case in Estonia, it had to give reasons for refusing access to specific sites. In the specific circumstances of the applicant’s case, the reasons, namely the security and costs implications, for not allowing him access to the Internet sites in question had not been sufficient to justify the interference with his right to receive information. Notably, the authorities had already made security arrangements for prisoners’ use of Internet via computers specially adapted for that purpose and under the supervision of the prison authorities and had borne the related costs. Indeed, the domestic courts had undertaken no detailed analysis as to the possible security risks of access to the three additional websites in question, bearing in mind that they were run by an international organization and by the State itself.

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