Freedom Online Conference: Keynote Speech on Surveillance

Remarks at the opening ceremony of the Freedom Online Conference

Tunis, Tunisia. June 17, 2013.

(As written prior to delivery,  UPDATED ROUGHLY AS DELIVERED, relevant hyperlinks added.)

Thank you so much Moez.

It is a real honor to be invited as the only non-governmental speaker at this opening ceremony – and the only woman!

Congratulations to the Tunisian government organizers and to you Moez, for all you have done to make this conference possible, and thank you also Moez for all the important work you have done for the new Tunisia – and for the global Internet community.

Congratulations also to the people of Tunisia.

Those of you who have connected to the wireless Internet in this room will notice that in addition to the Sheraton wifi signal there is another signal, “openwireless.org.” That signal is generated by a group of hackers and activists from a room called the #404lab – in reference to the 404 browser error associated with censorship under the old regime. In fact, that lab is in a building that was once a private home of the dictator Ben Ali.

Speaking here today is especially meaningful for be because the first time I came to Tunis was in 2005 – for the United Nations World Summit for the Information Society. The Internet was censored. Tunisian civil society groups critical of the previous government were kept far away from the conference hall.

I came because I was invited to moderate a panel sponsored by the Dutch organization, Hivos, on the theme of  “Expression under repression.”  Our panel was almost canceled. Some of the people in charge at the time said the subject matter was unrelated to the designated theme of the conference’s NGO forum: “ICT for Development.”

We were able to proceed only after a diplomatic intervention by the Netherlands. Bloggers form China, Iran, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe spoke about the challenges and threats faced by citizen media in their countries. Then a member of the audience stood up and criticized our motives: Our topic, freedom of speech, was not relevant she said to developing countries.

Governments, she said, must first solve the problems of feeding, clothing, and housing before addressing other demands. I asked the panelists to respond to her critique. Taurai Maduna of Zimbawe immediately said: “Without freedom of speech, I can’t talk about who is stealing my food.”

The people of Tunisia have made it very clear that they agree.

Tunisia – like any new democracy – is now struggling to figure out how to balance all kinds of conflicting economic, social, cultural, and religious interests. It is inevitable that there will be never-ending tensions between the government’s duty to protect national security and fight crime, and the imperative of protecting civil liberties and human rights.

The world’s oldest modern democracies continue to struggle with that tension. The Internet has extended that tension into a new, more challenging and often confusing dimension. In fact my own country the United States is now facing something of a crisis over how to balance the government’s national security responsibilities with respect for fundamental – universal – human rights.

For those of you on Twitter, you may have noticed that one of the participants pledged to have a drink every time the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance program, PRISM, is mentioned in the plenary. So: prism, prism prism, prism, prism. Now if you see somebody stumbling around the corridors you’ll know who that person is.

The responsibility of a government to protect human rights relates not only to its own citizens but to people everywhere in the world who are using the Internet services that are based in or pass through its jurisdiction.

The governments that joined the Freedom Online Coalition deserve the world’s praise in taking two vital steps: recognizing that human rights extend to the Internet; and making a shared commitment to preserving and nurturing a free and open, globally interconnected Internet.

But without a third step that effort will fail. We are not going to have a free and open global Internet if citizens of democracies continue to allow their governments to get away with pervasive surveillance that lacks sufficient transparency and public accountability – mechanisms to prevent its abuse against all Internet users wherever they are connecting from.

Nobody will have good reason to trust any networks or platforms run by foreign organizations or companies – or trust any service whose communications traffic might cross through any jurisdiction whose government is not committed to being accountable and honest about its surveillance practices.

The Internet’s balkanization is inevitable unless and until we make a shared commitment to mechanisms, norms and standards that will hold government surveillance – and corporate business practices including compliance with surveillance demands – appropriately accountable to universal human rights standards.

A minister from one of the Freedom Online Coalition countries recently remarked on a conference panel that surveillance is not an obstacle to Internet freedom because it is discrete. That’s like saying execution by lethal injection is humane because it is painless.

Certainly, there is a real difference between countries where public debate about surveillance is made impossible by censorship and repression – facilitated of course by surveillance – and countries where it is in fact politically and legally possible for journalists and bloggers to report on government abuses, or write commentaries criticizing their leaders, in response to revelations about the abuse and over-extension of government surveillance powers.

But human history is a story of how un-checked power has always been abused, whatever good intentions those in power may hold at the beginning.

If surveillance is so discrete that there is no meaningful way to hold the abusers accountable, then democracy will be degraded and corroded.

The breakdown of democracy under pervasive unaccountable surveillance will happen subtly and gradually – unobtrusively – like a frog in a pot with the temperature rising so slowly the frog doesn’t notice until he’s nearly cooked.

Meanwhile governments of all kinds of political systems all over the world will point to the widespread deployment of unobtrusive and pervasive surveillance by the developed democracies to justify their own surveillance states as so-called “standard international practice.” Thus making it harder for citizens to use the Internet to expose government officials who may be stealing their food without being caught and punished immediately.

A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue could not have come too soon. In it he presented examples from all over the world of exactly how pervasive and unaccountable surveillance threatens freedom of expression – and how this reality holds true for democracies and dictatorships alike.

He made several recommendations that will require effort but should be achievable. They include:

  • Updating and strengthening laws and legal standards to ensure that surveillance is conducted only in a manner that is publicly accountable.
  • Allowing and facilitating private, secure and anonymous communications.
  • Regulating the commercialization of surveillance technology.
  • Educating the public on the facts and implications of surveillance.
  • And making sure that international human rights mechanisms and frameworks are up to the task of identifying and constraining abuses by private and public entities alike.

Given the globally interconnected nature of the Internet it will not be enough if one or two enlightened democracies stand up and implement these recommendations while everyone else carries on as they presently do.

It is equally vital that the companies on whose platforms and services we depend – for practically everything in our lives these days – commit to technical and design standards, as well as business practices, that are consistent with universal human rights principles and standards.

Here in Tunis, the governments of the Freedom Online Coalition, civil society and private sector companies should commit to a multi-stakeholder process, working with civil society and the private sector, to determine how Mr. La Rue’s sensible recommendations can be implemented, along with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other related principles like the Global Network Initiative‘s principles for the ICT sector on free expression and privacy. These must be implemented across the Freedom Online Coalition community and beyond. Here in Tunis we should come up with a plan and timetable for doing so.

That process will not be easy. It will make the efforts we have made thus far on behalf of a free and open Internet look like a walk in the park compared to the mountain we must now climb.

But we must start immediately. Winter is coming.

The window of opportunity to salvage our shared vision of a free and open Internet is closing fast. Our way forward could soon be blocked – unless we get moving. Right now.

May the force be with you – always.

[Note: Some of the most iconic Star Wars scenes for many of the movies were shot in Tunisia, and the Dutch foreign minister's speech at the beginning of the opening ceremony contained multiple Star Wars references.]

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