Human Rights 16 August 2013

A perspective on principles for Internet surveillance

By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor
In recent weeks we have seen an emerging debate on government surveillance activities and their impact on users’ fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Part of this global debate focused on principles and guidelines that should govern these activities. Whether new principles and guidelines emerge or whether existing ones are being seen with fresh eyes, we observe an increasing interest in exploring ways to provide additional safeguards when it comes to the surveillance of online activities.

Technology is often double-edged. On the one hand, innovations in communication technologies have increased the possibilities for individuals to share information and ideas beyond borders, access educational material and discover other cultures. On the other hand, the very same tools have also generated opportunities for State surveillance of users’ personal exchanges. Such actions not only threaten privacy and the free flow of information, but they can also generate chilling effects on the Internet architecture and undermine the trust that users have in the network as a global, interoperable and resilient platform of communication ( 
Last week, the Internet Society Board of Trustees took the opportunity at its meeting on the margins of the IETF meeting, in Berlin, to release a statement calling for “the global Internet community to stand together to support open Internet access, freedom and privacy”. This statement re-emphasises the concerns of the Internet Society regarding the recently exposed information about government Internet surveillance programs, which risk threatening both the fundamental freedoms of Internet users, as well as the openness of the Internet as a whole. 
Robert Hinden, Chair of the Board of Trustees, used the setting of Berlin to remind us that human progress and technological innovation are not based on building walls, and that such surveillance activities, including those carried by countries who have traditionally advocated for an open Internet, threaten the trust and confidence that are so important for the Internet ecosystem and the relation between different stakeholders. 
In the past few weeks, many voices in the Internet community have made the point that security should not be sought at the expense of individual rights, challenging the notion that achieving security by necessity has to be the product of a trade-off with freedom of expression, privacy or social development.
In this regard, the ISOC Board of Trustees endorsed in its statement the initiative by some civil society organizations to promote “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.” These principles, developed over the past year by a set of civil society organisations, are intended to explain how existing human rights standards, international law, and jurisprudence should apply in the context of new capabilities and risks of digital surveillance.
In societies marked by increasing cross-border interactions, adapting the application of existing laws and rights to the online environment, while preserving the Internet’s sustainability and openness, seems to be a key challenge. These international principles on communication surveillance offer guidelines and safeguards so that laws are applied to the online environment in a way that is respectful of individual rights.
Released at the April 2013 session of the Human Rights Council – before the revelations about sweeping surveillance by security services made the news worldwide - the latest report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression also offers a timely focus on the implications of States’ surveillance of communications on the exercise of the human rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression. 
The report underlines the need to further study new modalities of surveillance and calls for a revision of national laws regulating these practices in line with human rights standards.
“Generally, legislation has not kept pace with the changes in technology. In most States, legal standards are either non-existent or inadequate to deal with the modern communications surveillance environment. As a result, States are increasingly seeking to justify the use of new technologies within the ambits of old legal frameworks, without recognizing that the expanded capabilities they now possess go far beyond what such frameworks envisaged” (p. 13)
The report also contends that changes in technology have been paralleled by changes in attitudes towards communications surveillance. The example that is given is the practice of official wiretapping in the U.S., which was first conducted on a restricted basis and only reluctantly sanctioned by the courts given its serious impact on privacy. The report goes on to argue that declining costs of technology and data storage have now eradicated financial or practical disincentives to conducting surveillance, which as a result is more invasive and on a greater scale than ever before. Hence, the report’s call for additional safeguards. 
While government plays an important role in protecting its citizens, and acknowledging the fact that national security sometimes involves secretive actions, real security can only be realized within a broader context of trust and the respect of fundamental rights, such as privacy (
As the Internet Society stated before, large scale surveillance activities underscore the importance of an open and inclusive global dialogue regarding online privacy in the realm of national security and the need for all stakeholders to abide by the norms and principles outlined in international agreements on data protection and other fundamental rights. Cooperation among stakeholders is indeed essential to reach efficient and legitimate solutions in an ecosystem marked by cross-border interactions and dependencies.
A trust-enabled infrastructure, fostering trusted interactions in cyberspace, is critical not only for the future of the global interoperability and openness of the Internet, but also for continued innovation, economic and political progress and a vibrant global community. 
(4 August 2013) Internet Society Board of Trustees Calls on the Global Internet Community to Stand Together to Support Open Internet Access, Freedom, and Privacy
(20 August 2013) Internet Society Launches Questionnaire on Multistakeholder Participation in Internet Governance 
(10 July 2013) International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance 
(27 June 2013) Human Rights Council panel: Internet freedom, security and development (blog post)
(17 June 2013,) Provoking National Boundaries on the Internet? A chilling thought…  (blog post)
(12 June 2013) Internet Society Statement on the Importance of Open Global Dialogue Regarding Online Privacy
(17 April 2013) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue (implications of States’ surveillance of communications on the exercise of the human rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression)


Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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