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UNESCO calls for research proposals: case studies on the role of Internet intermediaries in promoting freedom of expression on Internet

UNESCO launches a call for research proposals in order to identify principles for good practices and processes related to Internet intermediaries (such as Internet service providers, search engines, online media, and social media) that can protect freedom of expression by ensuring that any of limitations of this right are consistent with international standards. This project contributes to promoting online freedom of expression through assembling and analyzing empirical data, encouraging self-regulation and providing practical recommendations to industry, States and policy makers.

Interested researchers and organizations are invited to submit their proposals by 13 September 2013.

UNESCO, as enshrined in its Constitution, promotes the “free flow of ideas by word and image”. This covers promoting a free, open and accessible Internet space as part of promoting comprehensive freedom of expression both online and offline.

Internet intermediaries play a unique role in linking authors of content and audiences. They may either protect or jeopardize end user rights to free expression, given their role in capturing, storing, searching, sharing, transferring and processing large amount of information, data and user-generated content. This role is particularly prominent in the cases of search engines and internet-service providers (ISPs), hosting providers, cloud computing services, online social networks and media houses.

This project aims to identify principles for good practices and processes that are consistent with international standards for free expression that Internet intermediaries may follow in order to protect the human rights of end users online. Using a case study methodology, the research will evaluate how Internet intermediaries can either uphold or compromise freedom of expression. Up to five major categories of Internet intermediaries can be identified for research, bearing in mind that it may be richer and less costly to focus in upon fewer sectors:

  • Internet search engines and portals (Google, yahoo!, MSN, Baidu,, etc.)
  • Social media networks (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Sina Weibo, etc.)
  • Online media with user-generated content (BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, online newspapers, etc.)
  • ISPs, including telecommunication, cable and mobile operators (Verizon, AT&T,, Orange, T-mobile, Nokia)
  • Data processing, web hosting providers and cloud computing services, including big data hosts and Domain Name Registries (Navisite, Akamai, ICANN,, Verizon)

This project will make a unique contribution by gathering, evaluating and presenting empirical data and in-depth research on this topic that encourages principled self-regulation and particularly provides practical recommendations for how Internet intermediaries can meet international standards that respect the normative and fundamental value of free speech.

The results of this project will inform various actors who are intermediaries, as well as other stakeholders, and will also contribute to developing an international set of principles for good practices.  Research will possibly be presented at events around the World Summit on the Information Society and on Internet Governance Forum in 2014. The final research will likely be published as part of UNESCO’s Series on Internet Freedom and, budget allowing, be translated to all six UN official languages, which will inform UNESCO’s 195 Member States and other international policy-makers on intermediaries-related policy making to promote online freedom.

UNESCO, therefore, invites interested researchers and organizations to submit their proposals, according to the Background note and General Terms of Reference, by email to Ms Xianhong Hu, before noon (CET), 13 September 2013. Proposals should include a detailed description of the research methodology, possible case studies, timeline and the requested funding.