June 24, 2013 | By Jillian York

The Freedom Online Coalition in Tunis: A Call To Governments To Limit Surveillance

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is a group of governments that have declared themselves "committed to collaborating to advance Internet freedom." When the coalition first formed in the Hague two years ago, EFF noted the “disconnect … between what these state leaders practice, and what they preach.” Nonetheless, many of the members of the FOC—which has grown since 2011 from 18 to 21 countries—have put their money where their mouths are, donating millions toward technology and other projects promoting online freedom.

This year’s FOC conference was hosted by Tunisia, a country which—despite ongoing concerns about free expression—has made a rapid turnaround in the past two years from being amongst the world’s worst online censors toward becoming a bastion of online freedom in the Arab world.  In the run-up to the conference, the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI)—the former home of the Ben Ali regime’s censorship and surveillance technologies—opened its doors to hackers to create the #404 innovation lab, offering Open Wireless to all of its visitors.

The recent revelations around US government spying were, unsurprisingly, a hot topic throughout the two days of the conference. Rebecca MacKinnon's keynote speech addressed the changes that have occurred in Tunisia since the country played host to the World Summit on Information Society in 2005.  While she praised the participating governments for acknowledging the importance of a free and open Internet, she also warned:

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.

During several panels, activists from various countries addressed government officials directly as to their roles in conducting mass surveillance [watch video of a particularly contentious panel here]. EFF’s own Jillian York (who also served on the conference’s steering committee) and Seth Schoen participated in a panel alongside security researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire and Dan Meredith of the Open Technology Fund.  The panel focused largely on anti-surveillance technologies, taking the position that the FOC governments must give greater consideration to privacy-enabling technologies in their funding decisions.

Perhaps most importantly, the conference offered a unique opportunity for civil society groups and activists from various constituencies to come together around a common issue; as one attendee put it: “Ironically, that coming together was in part facilitated by the PRISM scandal hanging over the conference.”

That cohesion enabled a diverse constituency of civil society activists to organize a side event to have a more open discussion of surveillance. At the event, a group of activists worked to prepare a call to governments that was then presented by Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia (of Nawaat.org, a 2011 Pioneer Award winner) in the final plenary of the conference.  Referencing the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (that EFF and several fellow traveler NGOs have been working on for the past year), the statement called upon FOC member governments to:

  • Recognize that they are responsible for protecting the human rights of all people online, not just those of their own citizens. FOC members should review their policies and practices to ensure that they adhere to this principle.

  • Render any law, regulation, or legal interpretation related to monitoring and surveillance of online communications and connection accessible and foreseeable to the public. Secret law or secret interpretation is not valid law consented to by citizens.

  • Make transparent the scope and nature of requests to service providers related to surveillance of online communications, and not prohibit public disclosure to users by these service providers.

  • Improve understanding within national governments on the implications of surveillance for digital freedoms and the relations of trust between states and citizens.

In the year to come before the next conference in Tallinn, Estonia, governments must take steps to ensure that these principles are adhered to.  As MacKinnon stated, both governments and companies on whose platforms and service we depend need to commit to practices and policies that are consistent with universal human rights principles and standards.  And the 21 governments that comprise the Freedom Online Coalition must take the lead in doing so.


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