FoE logoThe Freedom of Expression Project

Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

1. Framing the issues: What do we mean by public interest principles and why do we need them?

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Thu, 2008-05-29 16:28.

The development, spread and continued evolution of digital networked technologies have revolutionised communications across the world, unleashing new challenges and opportunities in social, cultural, business and political spheres of life2. Our research in the first phase of the Freedom of Expression Project (FoE Project) revealed that many stakeholders recognise the need to harness these changes to ensure that they work to build communications environments that operate in the public interest. The project has also highlighted a need to bring together different strands of activity and policy thinking from across complex communications environments so that stakeholders from the business, government and civil society sectors can collaboratively develop shared values to guide their work and policy.

In this second phase of the FoE Project, we aim to:

  1. Identify a set of common values shared by all stakeholders3 that underpin a public interest communications environment. These should take internationally recognised human rights4 as a starting point.
  2. Identify policy principles that express and realise these values within communications environments.
  3. Identify how stakeholders can work together to operationalise the policy principles. This will involve geographically specific research to define the factors that are undermining or upholding the principles in different contexts, as well as an exploration of the roles and responsibilities for different stakeholder groups and of levers for change.

In the context of this project, we are referring to the concept of the public interest as it has developed in Western political thinking, linked inextricably to notions of liberal democracy and accountable governance. It is therefore underpinned by values of community, general welfare, dignity, equality and public participation in society5. The concept is useful to guide policy making and legislation, helping to balance competing claims and interests in society and encouraging judgements to take democratic values into consideration rather than being responsive only to sectional and individual interests relating to political and economic power6. A prominent example of public interest policy in the domain of media regulation is the public service criteria that many national broadcasters in Europe and other regions are obliged to meet.

While it is linked to a number of key underlying democratic values, “public interest” is a flexible term7. This serves to add to its strength and usefulness, allowing it to be applied in a wide range of different contexts to protect consumers and citizens. However, this flexibility also presents the danger of the concept being manipulated and used as a cover to serve sectional interests and powerful classes. It is for this reason that we believe that definitions of the public interest must always be rooted in individual human rights as defined in international law. These should form the basic values of any society; policy that violates human rights cannot be deemed to be in the public interest. Similarly, concepts of the public interest8 can help to balance the tensions that exist between different rights enshrined in law and also shed light on where the boundaries lie between individual rights and wider collective social responsibilities. For example, the right to culture (Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or ICCPR) helps to support an expansive definition of freedom of expression, allowing states to impose certain diversity obligations on private media outlets to ensure they act in the public interest . Taken together, the concepts of human rights and the public interest can help policy makers to balance individual and collective interests in order to foster peaceful, just and democratic societies that support human advancement.


2 The international conversations and research carried out under phase one of the Freedom of Expression Project demonstrated the scale and significance of the changes that are taking place. See

3 Government, business and civil society (including advocacy groups, academics and end users).

4 In the first phase of the Freedom of Expression Project we used free expression as a framing concept or lens through which to examine issues affecting the public interest in the networked world. In this phase we will be considering a wider range of internationally recognised human rights, examining how public interest policy principles can be rooted in, and can help to uphold, them.

5 Feintuck (2005)

6 Ibid.

7 Mendel (1999)

8 Lipson (2008)