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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression

Freedom Online Coalition Considers Best Practices for Promoting Freedom Online

This week, member governments of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) meet in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for their 5th annual Conference.  Established in 2011, the FOC comprises 26 member governments who have committed to work together to support Internet freedom and protect human rights worldwide. The overarching theme for the 2015 meeting is “Internet Policy Making – Best Practices for Promoting Online Freedoms” and is billed as an opportunity for governments, private sector, and civil society to discuss the threats to freedom online and the opportunities to protect and promote “fundamental freedoms and human rights.”

Five Years of the Freedom Online Coalition

The FOC’s annual meeting can provide a useful opportunity for a diverse collection of governments to discuss Internet policy issues that are driving policy debates at the national, regional, and global levels, and to strategize for upcoming intergovernmental meetings. This year’s conference will feature updates on the Coalition’s work in the past year, a discussion of Internet freedom trends in Asia, and a plenary session on “progressive policymaking for states.”

One of the outcomes of the FOC’s meeting in Tallinn, Estonia last year was to establish working groups of government, civil society, academics, and industry to focus on issues of cybersecurity, rule-of-law frameworks, and privacy and transparency online. CDT has been actively involved in two of these groups, which have met throughout the past year to deepen the FOC’s engagement on key topics that members states identified in the Tallinn Agenda (see below).

Matthew Shears, Director of CDT’s Global Internet Policy and Human Rights Project, is a member of the Working Group on “An Internet Free and Secure,” which has focused on advancing the normative debate on cybersecurity and human rights. In addition to the foundational work of developing a definition of cybersecurity and mapping cybersecurity fora and processes, the group has worked to develop a set of recommendations that promote multistakeholder and human rights-based approaches to cybersecurity policies and practices.

CDT’s Free Expression Project Director, Emma Llanso, is a member of the Working Group on “Privacy and Transparency Online.” This working group has focused on the transparency reports that both governments and ICT companies should provide regarding government demands for user data and content removal. Members of the group conducted individual consultations with a number of companies and governments to discuss their approaches to — and room for improvement in — transparency, oversight, and remedy around the requests governments make of ICT companies. Through these consultations, the group has been able to identify the main challenges and emerging best practices in transparency reporting, which will be provided in a report to the Coalition.

Whither the FOC?

As we noted in our wrap-up blog post upon the conclusion of last year’s meeting in Tallinn, the Foreign Secretary for the Netherlands, Frans Timmermans, 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.” The question remains: has the Freedom Online Coalition managed to accomplish this?

At the Tallinn meeting, the FOC member governments adopted the multistakeholder-developed Tallinn Agenda for Freedom Online, which outlines a number of areas of Internet policy where members pledge to focus their efforts. Post-Tallinn, we said that the FOC members had the opportunity to lead by example, and called for the FOC members to demonstrate accountability to the Tallinn Agenda commitments. For example, the FOC governments dedicated themselves “in conducting our own activities, to respect our human rights obligations, as well as the principles of the rule of law, legitimate purpose, non-arbitrariness, effective oversight, and transparency, and call upon others to do the same.” They further committed “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.”

The working groups’ activity over the past year has been designed to supplement these commitments with a deeper exploration of important Internet policy priorities, and we hope that the member governments take up the findings and recommendations of the various working groups. But the multistakeholder working groups can only accomplish so much, and implementing the Tallinn agenda remains the responsibility of the governments who have signed on to it. This week’s meeting in Ulaanbaatar should feature thorough reports of member states’ progress in meeting these commitments.

More broadly, the FOC should take the opportunity at this week’s meeting to provide an update of the Coalition’s accomplishments over the past five years. The Coalition has expanded from 15 members to 26 over the years; it would be particularly relevant to hear from newer members about the benefit they see in participation in the FOC. And, as the FOC discusses best practices for promoting online freedoms, it is imperative that member states draw from their own experiences – regarding both their successes and where there is clear room for improvement. The FOC members should commit to instituting open, inclusive, and transparent policy making processes at the national level, to ensure that all stakeholders can to contribute to policies that protect and promote online freedoms.

The Freedom Online Coalition represents a significant opportunity for a diverse set of governments to practice what they preach in preserving human rights online. Working together, these governments can demonstrate, in statements and in practice, what it means to engage in Internet policy making with human rights first in mind. Such a coalition can only truly succeed, however, if member governments can demonstrate significant, measurable progress on their commitments to improve their own practices from year to year.