Freedom Online Coalition agrees to recommendations on a free and secure Internet

The fourth annual meeting of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), an intergovernmental coalition that is committed to advancing free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online around the globe, concluded Tuesday in Tallinn, Estonia.  The meeting brought together governments, business, and civil society for two days of discussion on issues such as business and human rights, surveillance and transparency, maintaining one global Internet, and a range of other important Internet freedom and governance related issues.

At the meeting the FOC governments adopted the “Tallinn Agenda for Freedom Online”, a set of recommendations for respecting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms online that the FOC governments commit to undertake. The agenda was initially drafted by an FOC working group, which included CDT’s Matthew Shears and representatives from other organizations, and then revised by governments into a consensus document. It includes a number of topics, including censorship, privacy, surveillance, transparency and accountability, and multistakeholder governance.  The language on government surveillance in the recommendations does not go as far as it should, lacking, for example, an explicit call for governments worldwide to halt mass surveillance.

Still, the recommendations represent a positive, if incremental, commitment from governments 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.”  The governments also call for “enhanced transparency of government processes” and dedicate themselves, in conducting their own activities, “to respect [their] human rights obligations, as well as the principles of the rule of law, legitimate purpose, non-arbitrariness, effective oversight, and transparency. . . .”  These same issues were discussed at length in the main session on the Role of Business in Advancing an Open and Free Internet, moderated by Matthew.


After a year of revelations on mass surveillance, which the FOC had yet to address head-on and in an open manner, Frans Timmermans, Foreign Secretary for the Netherlands, admitted that “recent events —Snowden, et cetera —have challenged our credibility as free countries to handle the internet in a way our citizens will accept. Our credibility has been undermined and we need to regain that credibility.” Timmermans called for an open discussion on government surveillance as an important component of restoring this credibility. CDT welcomes this acknowledgement that the FOC governments must directly address the ways in which their own surveillance activity directly harms the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Internet users worldwide. If FOC governments are to lead by example in supporting a global Internet for the benefit of all, they must engage in serious reforms of their surveillance regimes.

CDT joined other civil society organizations in raising the undermining effects of government surveillance throughout the conference.  Together with the Global Network Initiative, we organized a panel on Surveillance Reform, Transparency and Accountability, and Emma Llanso spoke on ISOC’s panel on Surveillance policy ripples: the implications of data localization, traffic re-routing and other policies to counter extraterritorial surveillance.  CDT also signed on to a letter that was communicated to the FOC by Human Rights Watch calling for a response to Edward Snowden’s assertion that the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ used their surveillance capabilities to spy on human rights organizations domestically and internationally.  These allegations show the unfortunate depth of the credibility problem that the FOC must address: to surveil the organizations dedicated to fighting the very online abuses that the FOC condemns would be the deepest sort of hypocrisy. We eagerly await responses from the US, UK, and FOC about the veracity of these assertions.


During the conference, CDT called for the FOC members to demonstrate accountability to the Tallinn Agenda recommendations.  Whether the governments develop their own reporting mechanism, or civil society takes up the call to hold the FOC members to account, the 2015 FOC meeting in Mongolia should feature a thorough report of how the Tallinn Agenda has been implemented. There are a number of positive commitments the members have made, including supporting digital literacy and strengthening the IGF, but it’s also clear that FOC governments must make significant steps to address surveillance-related challenges in order to live up to even the modest commitments in the Tallinn Agenda.

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