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.


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.

Ranking Digital Rights and new TED talk

This blog has not been updated since April 2105, mainly due to the fact that I’ve been so busy with my main job running Ranking Digital Rights (RDR). (I also got married!!)

I’ve decided to revive this blog as a platform on which to share work I continue to do that goes beyond RDR’s scope and which might not be appropriate to share on the project website.

In brief, the main things I’ve done since I last wrote on this blog was to launch the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index in November 2015.  After some funding uncertainty in early 2016 we managed to secure the support to launch a new research cycle for the next Index scheduled for release in March 2017, and to continue the project for at least a couple more years.  If you’d like to learn much more about the Index and its result check out the video and summary of the Index launch. You can also download the full report and related materials here. To get a sense of the impact we’ve been having on companies in collaboration with advocacy partners, read this. Watch the project website for more updates on our research and related activities.

The other major thing I’ve done since this blog went dormant was to give another TED talk at the TEDSummit in Banff, Canada this past June. It’s about why the protection of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press is essential if we are going to succeed in fighting terrorism.Earlier in 2016 I wrote a piece for and spoke at South By Southwest Interactive on the same theme. A CSMonitor piece about it is here and a video is here.


How not to kill the Internet when fighting terror

Yesterday I testified at a hearing titled The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. I am not a counter-terrorism expert but I do have a few things to say about how not to destroy Internet users’ right to freedom of expression and privacy. Below is my five-minute oral testimony as delivered, with links added. A pdf of my more detailed written testimony, along testimony of all other speakers can be found here. Video is here.

How do we fight terrorism and violent extremism in the Internet age while not undermining the core principles and freedoms of democratic and open societies?

Terrorists are not the only people who are using social media powerfully and effectively. Yesterday I returned from the Philippines where I participated in a conference of bloggers, activists, and citizen journalists from all over the world. People who believe in freedom of expression, the open Internet, and multicultural tolerance. Many people connected to this community face serious threats of censorship and imprisonment when they write about subjects or advocate policy positions that their governments find threatening. In countries like Ethiopia, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, China and elsewhere some have even been charged under broad anti-terror laws that are habitually used as tools to keep incumbent regimes in power.

In response to the tragic massacre in Paris, the French government has called for UN member states to work together on an international legal framework that would place greater responsibility on social networks and other Internet platforms for terrorist use of their services. In addressing the problem of terrorist use of social networking platforms, the United States should adhere to the following principles:

First, multi-stakeholder policymaking. The US opposes UN control over Internet governance because many UN member states advocate policies that would make the Internet much less free and open. Instead the US supports a multi-stakeholder approach that includes industry, civil society, and the technical community alongside governments in setting policies and technical standards that ensure that the Internet functions globally. In constructing global responses to terrorist use of the Internet we need a multi-stakeholder approach for the same reasons.

Second, any national level laws, regulations, or policies aimed at regulating or policing online activities should undergo a human rights risk assessment process to identify potential negative repercussions for freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. Governments need to be transparent with the public about the nature and volume of requests being made to companies. Companies need to be able to uphold core principles of freedom of expression and privacy, grounded in international human rights standards. Several major US-based Internet companies have made commitments to uphold these rights as members of the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative. Guidelines for implementing these commitments include: narrowly interpreting government demands to restrict content or grant access to user data or communications; challenging government requests that lack a clear user basis; transparency with users about the types of government requests received and the extent to which the company complies; restricting compliance to the online domains over which the requesting government actually has jurisdiction.

Third, liability for Internet intermediaries including social networks for users’ behavior must be kept limited. Research conducted around the world by human rights experts and legal scholars shows clear evidence that when companies are held liable for users’ speech and activity, violations of free expression and privacy can be expected to occur. Limited liability for Internet companies is an important prerequisite for keeping the Internet open and free.

Fourth, development and enforcement of companies’ Terms of Service and other forms of private policing must also undergo human rights risk assessments. Any new procedures developed by companies to eliminate terrorist activity from their platforms must be accompanied by engagement with key affected stakeholders and at-risk groups.

Fifth, in order to prevent abuse and maintain public support for the measures taken, governments as well as companies must provide effective, accessible channels for grievance and remedy for people whose rights to free expression, assembly, and privacy have been violated. Thank you for listening and I look forward to your questions.

The above recommendations were informed by my years of work on Internet free expression and privacy issues, the Global Network Initiative’s principles and implementation guidelines, standards for Internet and other ICT sector companies currently under development by the Ranking Digital Rights project, and a new report published by UNESCO titled Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries.

In the Q&A session, in response to a question about why companies don’t do a better job of working with the government and others to take down terrorist speech, I tried to remind the committee that we have a bit of a trust deficit between Silicon Valley and the national security community these days. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations, U.S. companies are already under fire for how NSA has used them for surveillance. The lack of trust, accountability and transparency about the relationship between Internet companies and the US government is a barrier to constructive dialogue. If I’d had more time to comment, I would have suggested that an overhaul of this country’s surveillance laws might be a good place to start in building trust between companies, government, and Internet users. Calling for back doors and opposing encryption doesn’t help either.

Here is the full video:

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, “” 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.]

Collateral damage: news organizations, free speech, and the Internet

Last month I delivered the 2012 Hearst New Media Lecture at the Columbia Journalism School, I argued that in pursuit of commercial self-interest, many news organizations are supporting business practices, technologies, and legislation that will diminish the Internet’s openness and freedom. While this might be good for business in the short term, in the long run everybody will lose – especially journalists.

Check out a summary of my key points on the Read the full text here, or watch the video here.

Video of New York Launch Event

Thanks to Joly MacFie for filming and uploading the video of last week’s New York launch event hosted by the New America Foundation and led by CNN’s Mark Whitaker. Thanks also to Cory Doctorow for posting it on Boingboing.

Click here for West Coast events over the next ten days, followed by more on the East Coast and Europe.

Launch Events in Washington DC and New York City!

Consent of the Networked will be available in bookstores on January 31st.

To celebrate the launch, the New America Foundation where I am a Senior Fellow has teamed up with the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC for a launch party at the House of Sweden from 6-8pm that evening. NAF President Steve Coll will host a conversation about the book, followed by cocktails and a book signing. RSVP required.

The next evening, February 1st, NAF will host another launch party in New York City, featuring a conversation with Mark Whitaker, Executive Vice President and Managing Editor for CNN Worldwide. For more details and to RSVP please click here.

For my full speaking schedule in February and March – regularly updated as events are confirmed – can be found by clicking here.

Two preview book talks in Northern California

While it won’t be available in bookstores until January 31st, copies will be available for sale at two events this coming week in Northern California.

Join me on Wednesday Jan 11, 4pm at UC Davis Law School or on Thursday Jan. 12, 4:30-6pm at Stanford University.

Both are free and open to the public, though Stanford requires an RSVP. Please click on the links for details.

More information about my speaking schedule on the East and West Coasts in February (and Europe in March) can be found on this website’s speaking schedule page, which will be regularly updated from now on.