Event Recap: 2013 Learning Forum in Brussels

Date: 
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 09:49

The Global Network Initiative and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy

2013 Learning Forum

Brussels, Belgium

Event Summary

On 13 November 2013, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (ID) held their first joint Learning Forum, presenting an opportunity for information and communications technology (ICT) companies, civil society organizations, academics, investors, government officials, and international organizations to share their perspectives on current challenges facing freedom of expression and privacy.  The forum was moderated by John Kampfner.

The event commenced with remarks by GNI Board Chair Jermyn Brooks and ID Chair Yves Nissim, who spoke about some of the actions that ICT companies are presently taking in order to protect their users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. They described how the GNI and the ID are sharing best practices as part of their two-year collaboration.

The evolving free expression and privacy challenges in the ICT sector 

Featuring: Leslie Harris, Center for Democracy and Technology; Jeanette Hofmann, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society; Marília Maciel, Center for Technology & Society - FGV Law School; and Dewi van de Weerd, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands

Panelists addressed the issues that have emerged due to revelations about massive communications surveillance by governments. Participants expressed that in many countries, legal frameworks on privacy and data protection are weak and provide for broad exceptions where national security is concerned. The laws generally deal with targeted rather than systematic surveillance, and they generally do not regulate the use of metadata. As a result, government powers to conduct surveillance have not been subject to robust democratic debate. Participants expressed that the rule of law must apply online as it does offline, and they cited the constant struggle for governments to align their principles on surveillance across all departments and functions. The degree to which international human rights law protects the rights of persons beyond the borders of a country that is conducting surveillance was identified as a topic that requires further examination. The concern was also expressed that recent proposals to nationalize the routing and storage of data could disrupt the free flow of information via the Internet.   

Participants also identified positive responses to these problems at both the national and international level. Efforts to address the issues raised by communications surveillance at the United Nations, through international dialogues, and through collaborations such as the Freedom Online Coalition were identified, although it was emphasized that all regions must be present in these debates. Participants also cited the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, developed by civil society organizations, as a positive contribution to the debate. Companies have contributed by developing new tools to protect privacy and by joining together to share best practices and discuss ways to make their operations more transparent. Participants emphasized the importance of collaboration and dialogue among all sectors in responding to these challenges. 

Free expression and privacy issues across the Atlantic and around the globe

Featuring: William Echikson, Google; Elonnai Hickock, Centre for Internet & Society; Patrick Hiselius, TeliaSonera; Carina Lundberg Markow, Folksam; and Rebecca MacKinnon, New America Foundation 

Panelists from ICT companies, academia, the investor community, and civil society generally agreed that companies are increasingly required to play a prominent role in protecting customers’ rights. Panelists cited growing pressure from national governments on telecommunications companies to re-draw the borders of the Internet by requiring the localization of data. In some countries, law enforcement has sought to reduce the cost of obtaining user data by pushing companies to provide direct access. In one developing market, prison terms may be imposed on Internet Service Providers that refuse to comply with government requests, greatly constraining the ability of companies to push back against illegitimate demands. Some countries offer no legal protections for privacy. 

Participants expressed that companies should remain in challenging markets, due to the positive impact that they can have on public policy and the fact that they are ultimately accountable to the media, shareholders, and civil society in their home countries. In countries where laws are ambiguous and oversight mechanisms are weak, companies should adopt and follow clear processes for responding to requests from governments. At the same time, locally developed policies and legislation were thought to represent better solutions in these countries than the transposition of European policies. Panelists expressed that, where possible, it is preferable for telecommunications operators to maintain operational and technical control over their networks rather than to provide direct access to governments. It was also emphasized that dialogue between investors and companies can be constructive when the legal course of action and the right course of action appear to be different standards. 

Participants expressed that companies must foster trust among their users through greater transparency. This is a challenge in many countries, which do not allow reporting on government requests that impact freedom of expression and privacy, but policies in Sweden and Finland on transparency were identified as good examples. In terms of practical steps that companies might take, some companies found that by publishing the number of government requests received, they have contributed to a public debate that has led to greater transparency. Some participants expressed that numbers provide an incomplete picture and indicated that the publication of company policies and procedures, as well as more information on what government requests achieve, are helpful measures. When a precise event occurs, such as the blocking of a Web site, an indication that it has been blocked fosters public debate.  Companies can also work with civil society organizations to push for policy reform in countries with problematic laws.