By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations' main human rights body has for the first time backed people's right to freedom of expression on the Internet in the wake of the massive role that social media networks played in the Arab Spring.
In a landmark resolution, the U.N. Human Rights Council's 47 members states agreed on Thursday that this right should be protected by all states and access to the Internet should also be guaranteed.
Both China and Cuba have tried to limit access to the Internet and voiced some reservations but joined the consensus recognizing "the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development".
"This outcome is momentous for the Human Rights Council," said U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe, whose country co-sponsored the Swedish-led motion with countries including Brazil and Tunisia.
"It's the first ever U.N. resolution affirming that human rights in the digital realm must be protected and promoted to the same extent and with the same commitment as human rights in the physical world," she told reporters.
Tunisia's envoy Moncef Baati said the Internet had played a vital role in mobilizing people in his country's "revolution" last year.
U.N. officials said it was the first U.N. resolution on the issue, but noted that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a U.N. agency, had affirmed the principle since 2003.
China's envoy backed the motion but said Internet users, especially youth, also needed to be protected from harmful websites.
"We believe that the free flow of information on the Internet and the safe flow of information on the Internet are mutually dependent," Xia Jingge told the Geneva forum, which ends a three-week session on Friday.
"As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, violence, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of society and the public."
"GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA"
China's blocking of websites and censorship of search results for politically sensitive terms is known colloquially as the "Great Firewall of China", though some Internet users have skirted restrictions by using code words.
Bloomberg's news websites remained blocked in China on Wednesday five days after it issued a story about the finances of the extended family of the country's vice president, highlighting how Beijing is trying to shape public opinion ahead of a leadership transition.
Donahoe said China has had "difficulty" in joining consensus on civil and political rights linked to freedom of association.
"The fact that they found a way to be part of this is a significant, important move in their thinking," she told Reuters. "It must reflect an awareness that the Internet is here to stay, is an essential part of everyone's economy and will be a linchpin of development for all countries and they have to be part of it."
Cuba said the text failed to address the fact that most people in the world lack access to information technology.
"Only 30 percent of the world population currently has access to this form of technology," Cuban diplomat Juan Antonio Quintanilla said in a speech.
In a thinly-veiled reference to its longtime foe, the United States, he added: "Nor in the text is anything said about Internet governance. When we all know that this tool is controlled by a single country globally and this is something which hampers free access to this very important tool."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)