The Digital Freedom of Association

By Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Galma Godana


The freedom of association has traditionally been defined as the right to be with other people for a legal reason, cause or purpose, without interference.[1] However, with the advent of modern technology, today’s emergent associations differ in important ways from traditional political and social organizations.

Recent global events particularly those associated with the Arab Spring form prime examples of the need to examine and analyze the legal protections afforded to associations in the digital age and whether such protections are sufficient in the wake of emerging threats.

Thus, an analysis of the commonalities and the differing aspects of the contrasting viewpoints of the subject right as well as the impacts of this is well justified in light of the changing context within which the right is exercised and indeed with a view to building a wholesome definition having considered all relevant factors.


Freedom of association has commonly been associated with the notions of physical meetings and geographical proximity. However, advances in modern communication technology have greatly shifted the context of this right and led to a number of differing aspects with its traditional understanding. The prime difference consists in the non-requirement of geographical proximity. Previously, participation of one’s associational freedom often meant attendance of in person meetings. Conversely, in the present day, one can participate in the activities of an association without the need for physical attendance or geographical proximity due to the relatively inexpensive nature of internet connection. Global events ranging from the political uprisings that swept across the Arab world to the Occupy Wall Street Movement have highlighted the use of digital technology in the exercise of the subject right.[2]

Another key differing factor is the platform on which the right is exercised. In its traditional understanding, the right is often exercised in public spaces such as city squares whereas the digital right extends to digital platforms such as discussion forums and chat rooms. This view was supported by the APC which stated that the right should be construed to include any space where people can meet, including online spaces.[3]

A logical import from the differences highlighted is the central role of modern technology as a conduit to the exercise of the digital right. This view is reiterated by the 2012 report of the former Special Rapporteur where he called upon States “to recognize that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association can be exercised through new technologies, including through the Internet”.[4] This view was also highlighted by the Human Rights Council in its Resolution 24/5 in which it:

“Reiterated the important role of new information and communications technologies in enabling and facilitating the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association…”

However, these differences do not constitute a comprehensive redefinition because of the commonalities shared such as the similar nature of the associations in both conceptions. As per the ‘Guidelines on Freedom of Association’ an association is “an organized, independent, not-for-profit body with an institutional structure based on the voluntary grouping of persons with a common purpose.”[5] Online associations fulfill each of these requirements therefore enjoying protection even in the traditional understanding.


In view of the differences as well as the commonalities of the contrasting interpretations of the subject right one can reasonably deduce that the digital right can be defined as the right to voluntarily join with others through collective action based on a common purpose through the use of modern communication technology without interference.

Perhaps an interpretational challenge in defining the subject right also owes to its confusion with the related freedom of assembly. Freedom of assembly secures the right of people to meet for any purpose connected with government whereas associational freedom protects the activities and composition of such meetings.[6] 


Digital technology has transformed the ways in which civic and political associations are formed and operate. Political and civic “work” in society is increasingly performed not by traditionally organized and well-defined associations but by decentralized networks of individuals. As such, online association has opened the door for a more effective advocacy of Human Rights issues which may be dangerous in authoritarian states and for the faster aggregation of resources for community development.

However, the same features of modern communications technology that enhance associational freedom also crucially enhance the threat posed by relational surveillance. Relational surveillance can loosely be defined as surveillance that makes extensive use of digital communications in order to determine the associative groups to which an individual belongs.[7] Comprehensive surveillance has the unfortunate propensity to cause exploitation of vulnerable groupings in society. Indeed surveillance also highlights the occasionally involuntary nature of online association since it uncovers exploratory activities such as inquiries or admission into social media groups which could mark an individual as a “member” of an association before express consent has been made. Additionally, the networking tool of the internet is useful not only to legitimate civic groups but also to criminal and terrorist groups as they can also benefit from the pseudonymity of digital association.[8]

Lastly, the central role of data in modern communications technology and continuous data collection often leads to the threat of profiling. It is no secret that platform providers retain consumer data often using it for targeted advertising purposes.[9] However, the emergent use of data as a value tool whereby data is sold to advertisers and other firms has led to widespread privacy concerns highlighted best by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.[10]

Given that the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act’s chief focus is with regard to the content of the data rather than the collection and use of data and the relative lack of comprehensive data protection legislation outside the Constitution, it would seem that the local laws are ill equipped to deal with the issue of surveillance. Therefore, there is need for legislation to regulate and provide oversight on;

  1. circumstances under which platform providers can collect and use data,
  2. circumstances under which platform providers can share such data with government agencies and other 3rd parties.


Although modern communications technology has greatly enhanced associational freedom for many informal associations, it has also facilitated the emergence of new threats such as that of surveillance. This expansion of the scope of the subject right has meant that current legislation is insufficient in the wake of new threats. Therefore, it is imperative to review and update relevant legislation in order to comprehensively address these concerns.

[1] on 26th July 2018

[2] on 5th August 2018

[3] on 26th July 2018

[4] on 26th July 2018

[5] on 26th July 2018

[6] on 26th July 2018

[7] on 26th July 2018

[8] on 26th July 2018

[9] on 5th August 2018

[10] on 26th July 2018

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