The Right of Online

Six key dimensions

The Right of Peaceful Assembly in Online Spaces


Current events, from the coronavirus lockdowns that have meant our engagements with the world have almost exclusively been mediated through technologies, to the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests that are equally vibrant on the streets and on social media, highlight how important it is to understand and protect our right of peaceful assembly online.

Freedom of peaceful assembly is widely recognised as a human right, a political right and a civil liberty. As technology continues to evolve, the use of information and communication technologies can help activists and protesters coordinate peaceful assemblies, and it can provide spaces for gatherings that transcend the constraints of place and time. 

But technology also brings threats to the rights of assembly, including internet shutdowns as well as the chilling effects resulting from new and exacerbated forms of surveillance and discrimination. Governments have obligations to protect and promote the right, but they may also restrict or regulate the exercise of the right in the name of public safety. Much is at stake.

The right of peaceful assembly is recognised in Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee decided to write a General Comment, which is an 'interpretation of human rights treaty provisions', about this right. Considering that General Comments are not often revised, they must not only capture the current state of affairs but also address emerging needs and challenges. In the context of Draft General Comment 37, this means considering how new and developing technologies may impact how people gather. 

In drafting General Comment 37, the Human Rights Committee has consulted far and wide. As part of this process, CGHR collaborated with researchers at the University of East Anglia Law School to create a research pack outlining six key dimensions of the right to peaceful assembly as practiced online. Then, together with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, CGHR and the UEA Law School held an expert workshop in Cambridge to discuss these issues with academics, policymakers, human rights practitioners and members of the UN Human Rights Committee, including the Rapporteur on General Comment 37, Christof Heyns.

In March 2020, CGHR Co-Director Sharath Srinivasan presented on the submission and key recommendations to the UN Human Rights Committee and international experts at a special workshop organised by the Rapporteur in Glion, Switzerland. Soon after, the Human Rights Committee met in Geneva to review and update the General Comment draft, and online assemblies were given renewed focus. The COVID19 crisis cut short the Committee's session, and so as at June 2020 work on the finalisation of the Comment is still underway.  

Click here to read the report

Click here to read the report

Six Key Dimensions

1. Purpose

Considering that social action is increasingly mediated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) and recognizing too the blended and hybrid nature of online and offline activity, the right of peaceful assembly must be capable of offering protection to new and dynamic forms of gathering. The multiple ways in which people choose to gather with others in online spaces – including gatherings that may be neither primarily expressive nor formally associative – ought to engage the protection of Article 21 ICCPR.

2. Public and Private

All assemblies must take place somewhere, whether a public place or a social media platform. Often, these places are governed by certain rules. For example, assemblies might only be able to gather in a place during daylight hours or they might face noise restrictions.

The orthodox logics governing online places, which tend to be anchored in private rather than public ownership, can interfere with the nature and modalities of assemblies, including at the stages of the production, transmission and reception of any communicative elements (whether expression or interaction).

For example, at the production stage, the logic of profit encourages particular types of communication in order to be picked up by the algorithm that determines visibility, including communications that create a context hostile to particular groups. At the transmission stage, these algorithms determine what is visible to whom – and what is invisible. At the reception stage, the model of surveillance capitalism also sets the stage for easy eavesdropping by external parties, both commercial and governmental.

3. Presence and Participation

When gathering online, it becomes necessary to interpret what constitutes ‘participation’ or ‘presence’ in an assembly. Should a Facebook page ‘like’ count, for example, or the use of profile picture solidarity memes and hashtags? Furthermore, Mediators and administrators play a role in determining who participates and when.

It can be difficult to track precisely what counts as ‘participation’. If more passive actions are considered participation, the distinctiveness of right of assembly could be lost. But to not include them at all may exclude individuals who need or deserve protection.

4. Temporary and Permanent

Because of permanent digital traces and the fact that participants are distributed across time and space, online assemblies are not temporary in the same way that protests or marches are. Because of this, it may be difficult to define online gatherings as ‘assemblies’.

However, physical gatherings such as protest camps that might extend for months or years have been found to fall within the definition of assemblies. And therefore the permanence of online assemblies should not cancel an individual’s right to assemble as practiced online.

5. Peaceful and non-peaceful

Online assemblies may conjure modes and forms of behaviour (including trolling, hacktivism, DoS/DDoS attacks and other acts of service disruption that target – for example – corporate, government or military websites). These raise the question for where to draw the line between peaceful and non-peaceful assemblies in the online realm. Some of the latter such activities fall outside the protective scope of either expression or assembly, but, to the extent that they involve intentional gatherings, may on occasion be viewed as analogous to sit-ins and occupations.

6. State Obligations

States’ obligations of non-interference under Article 21 should be extended to include the misuse of digital technologies. States must not interfere with peaceful assemblies gathered online, meaning they cannot block, filter or remove content where that would interfere with the legitimate exercise of the right. They sould not engage in strategies designed to manipulate visibility in and of an online assembly such as through the deployment of bots.

Furthermore, states must not persuade or coerce individuals to restrict themselves only to online assemblies as a substitute for real-world assemblies. 

Usually, human rights are the responsibilities of a specific country or territory, but online assemblies are not restricted geographically. For example, the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements are active around the world, both in cohesive online spaces and in physical places. Their transnationality raises questions in regards to the tension between the protection of such assemblies practiced online across borders and classical legal principles such as sovereignty and non-intervention. 

To learn more, read the UN Draft General comment and the CGHR/UEA Law School submission here  and the complete research pack here.  

The Right of Peaceful Assembly Online Research Pack was researched and written by:

Michael Hamilton, Suzanne Dixon and Jennifer Young (University of East Anglia) and Ella McPherson, Sharath Srinivasan, Eleanor Salter, Katja Achermann, Camille Barras, Allysa Czerwinsky, Bronwen Mehta and Muznah Siddiqui (Centre of Governance and Human Rights, University of Cambridge).