Remarks to the Freedom Online Conference opening session

In June 2013 shortly after the first Snowden revelations on NSA surveillance came out, I gave a keynote address to the Freedom Online Conference in Tunis. Three years later I was asked to address this morning’s opening session of the Freedom Online Conference in Costa Rica. Below are the remarks I prepared, updated after delivery with links added.

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It has been five years since the Freedom Online Coalition was founded. Since 2011 we’ve traveled some ways together on a road that has been anything but straight or flat.

I am going to be frank about the work we still need to do to make this coalition more effective in fostering a more free and open global internet that supports “freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

The inconvenient truth is that while global internet use has grown by over a billion people in the past five years, especially in the Global South, the world’s newest users have joined an internet that is measurably less free and open than it was five years ago.

What are we doing for them?

I think its fair to say that member countries have done much to advance the basic concept that human rights apply equally online and offline within the international human rights system.

Support by member countries for the work of the special rapporteurs, on freedom of expression, and now also privacy, has helped advance global understanding of what protection of online rights actually means in a practical sense.

Coalition members have worked together to support and strengthen existing multi-stakeholder internet governance institutions.

The Digital Defenders Partnership is a very tangible product of the coalition.

But let’s face it. Many Coalition member countries are not leading by example in demonstrating what best practice – or even best effort – should look like in tackling very difficult and often urgent domestic economic, political, and security concerns in ways that are consistent with fostering global online freedom.

Recall specifically that the Coalition’s Tallinn Declaration calls “upon governments worldwide to promote transparency and independent, effective domestic oversight related to electronic surveillance, use of content take-down notices, limitations or restrictions on online content or user access and other similar measures, while committing ourselves to do the same”.

Three multi-stakeholder working groups were created two years ago at the time of the Tallinn Declaration to advance those and other objectives related to empowerment of internet users around the world.

All three have produced recommendations for governments and other stakeholders. Yet there is no mechanism that commits member governments even to consider these recommendations – let alone implement them.

For example, Working Group 1 has developed recommendations for human rights based approaches to cybersecurity.

Will any member states lead by example in carrying out a meaningful inter-agency review on the extent to which their own cybersecurity related laws policies and practices are human rights compatible?

Are they willing and able to engage in serious national and international dialogue on how to get from where they are to where they need to be?

To its credit last year the coalition commissioned an independent reviewwhich has produced a number of recommendations, including the creation of new mechanisms:

  • through which stakeholders can raise concerns about actions of member governments;
  • through which member governments’ performance in meeting their commitments can be periodically reviewed;
  •  and by which the coalition considers and responds to the recommendations of the working groups.

The San Jose Statement released by member states today is a helpful clarification of the coalition’s purpose as primarily focusing on cross regional diplomacy that will help to shape global norms on human rights online.

But we cannot escape the reality that internet freedom starts at home. Member states must  lead by example if  diplomacy is to be credible.

I hope we can spend the next two days in practical discussions of whether and how non-government stakeholders engaged in the coalition can help member states bring policy and practice into better alignment.

To that end, in addition to the recommendations produced by the independent review I’d like to propose four further steps:

First, we need be a process through which member governments work with civil society and private sector stakeholders to identify urgent issues and develop statements and recommendations addressing specific time-sensitive threats to freedom online, such as the global epidemic of network shutdowns.

Second, we need a concrete set of Freedom Online Indicators that can be used to benchmark member states on the extent to which they are meeting their commitments – and the extent to which their laws and regulations maximize the private sector’s ability to respect internet users’ rights.

Third, governments should produce  National Action Plans describing concrete efforts they are making to meet their commitments.

Fourth, we should consider establishing a multi-stakeholder transparency reporting and assessment process to help member governments and companies implement  commitments to transparency and accountability around requests made by governments of companies to share user information, restrict content or shut down networks.

This process could be modeled after the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) whereby governments report on payments received by oil and gas and mining companies and companies report in parallel on the payments they make to governments, in order to improve accountability over who benefits from the exploitation of natural resources.

In the case of such a Digital Transparency Initiative some sort of assurance process would verify the quality and accuracy of the reporting.

So while the coalition is to be commended for  positive initiatives and commitments – we still have a long way to go.

Let’s spend the next two days coming up with  concrete plans for how this coalition will have tangible impact on making the global internet more free and open.

For the sake of the world’s current and future internet users, we’ve got to try harder.

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