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 » Request for Quotation: Research on online licensing and free expression
30.07.2014 - Communication & Information Sector

Request for Quotation: Research on online licensing and free expression

UNESCO seeks to contract an individual or the organization to produce a research study on the topic of online licensing and free expression, and particularly as regards journalism. The time frame is September 2014 – April 2015.The first draft will be submitted to UNESCO by 30 November 2014 in order to feed into the Organization’s Internet-study, and the final draft delivered by 15 April 2015 for possible separate publication. It will be high quality research of relevance to UNESCO and its member states, as well as to media actors.

Interested parties should submit (i) proposal (ii) budget by 12 August 2014.

The study will be published under Creative Commons licence and made available in pdf and epub formats.


UNESCO is the United Nations specialized agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression and its corollary press freedom. By Resolution 52 of the 37th General Conference in 2013, UNESCO is mandated to conduct a comprehensive and consultative study on Internet-related issues (http://www.unesco.org/new/internetstudy), the results of which should include options that inform the Organization’s reporting to the 38th General Conference in 2015. The study includes freedom of expression and privacy, amongst its issues of concern. A focus that has been identified that concerns both two rights is the licensing of online journalistic expression. Restricting access to using a means of communication is a matter directly related to press freedom.  It has emerged as a complimentary approach to the longer-standing practices of filtering and blocking which impact particularly on the right to seek and receive information.  States reported to have introduced some kind of requirement for online publishing include Singapore, Jordan and Russia.

From the point of view of international standards, free expression is the norm, and restrictions the exception.  In this light, the registration of journalists and media outlets has been evaluated as to its necessity, proportionality and legitimate purpose.  When registration serves as licensing, strict tests are needed to ensure legitimacy. Historically, the licensing of broadcasting has been justifiable as a method to regulate the allocation of limited transmission frequencies, and to impose conditions on this use of a public resource. Given the infinite possibilities for private publishing on print or online, the same rationale for licensing does not apply, and open access prevails. International practice therefore points to permission free journalism online, subject only to the legitimate limited restrictions that apply to free expression in general, such as based on the rights of others (e.g. Defamation) or public safety (e.g. Incitement to violence).

Reinforcing the norm whereby individuals do not need registration or license to publish online, the Internet has also historically afforded a degree of anonymity. This has allowed for free expression in cases where individuals chose to keep their identity private, and which thereby made possible a volume of journalistic content in the public sphere that would not otherwise have appeared.

At the same time, as recognized in the recent UNESCO report “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development”, an increasing number of countries are introducing registration and either formal or de facto licensing for online access or availability, and particularly for the use of access for the purposes of online publishing.  This trend risks becoming an exclusionary device on the one hand – entailing prior censorship, and on the other hand, serving as a mechanism that enforces self-censorship by curbing the bounds of publishing in ways that go beyond legitimate limitation. In some cases, the responsibility required of licensed online publishers extends to user comments on their platform.

Existing research

Aside from UNESCO’s recent publication World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development that refers in parts to this new development, not much comprehensive information exists on the topic. Research such as that produced by Open Net, Reporters sans Frontiers and Freedom House has focused more on issues of blocking, filtering and attacks on existing online content. The Netizen Report however signals a range of emerging cases, which lend themselves to further follow-up and analysis.

Issues and Purpose

The issue of by-permission publishing online raises complex issues for assessments of recent policy, legal, and regulatory regimes, and research should address:  

  • Any distinctions made between registration and licensing for this form of expression within such by-permission publishing regulatory regimes;
  • Assessment of de-registration or license suspension / withdrawal provisions, and redress procedures;
  • Assessment of how anonymity (an enabler of privacy) features in these regimes;
  • Assessments of the actors deemed covered by these regimes;
  • Assessments of the liability imposed by registration/licensing for user generated content and comment;
  • Assessments of jurisdictional dimensions involved;
  • Assessment of the conditionalities for approved access to online publishing within such regimes;
  • Assessment of the sanctions and penalities, in regard to proportionality principles, that are applied uniquely to online publishing;
  • How by-permission online publishing is monitored and implemented (by ISPs, social networks, etc).

The purpose this proposed research is to provide contemporary and evidence-based answers to these questions, thereby producing new information that can assist all stakeholders with interests in the topic and in particular contribute to the UNESCO study on Internet-related issues.  With the latter in mind, it will be important to complete the research by the end of November 2014.

Research process

The process requires:

  1. A mapping of 10-20 countries with recent regulatory changes in this area; this mapping can be done on a template, allowing for quantitative tabulation of results. 
  2. Overview of the issues, and review of developments worldwide in the past two years.
  3. A qualitative analysis of the early phases of implementation of new regimes.
  4. Finally, general recommendations are needed about what steps could ensure alignment of measures with international standards.

An editorial board of volunteer experts would be valuable to add insight and provide peer review for the study.

Contents and distribution

The envisioned output document will provisionally be as follows:



Executive summary








Statistical findings


Qualitative findings


Conclusions and Recommendations






The study should be made available in English in the first instance, and be further translated if resources permit. It will be published under Creative Commons licence (i.e. for free download), and made available in pdf and epub formats. 

To elaborate on the scope of the study UNESCO will provide the selected contractor with an extensive concept note.

Interested parties should submit (i) proposal (ii) budget by 12 August 2014 to: c.hammarberg(at)unesco.org and x.hu(at)unesco.org.

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