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IGF 2013: Surveillance, Snowden fallout top of the agenda in Bali

As anticipated, the Snowden revelations – first referred to in the opening session as the “elephant in the room” – soon became the central focus of many of the 150 workshops that took place during the 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali, and dominated the bilateral meetings that took place between governments, the private sector, the tech community, and civil society.

The various stakeholders arrived at the IGF ready to pursue their own agendas. The U.S. came to try and restore its image as a concerned protector of human rights of Internet users; China, to seize the opportunity to portray itself as a support of citizen’s rights in face of mass foreign surveillance programmes of Western democracies; and Brazil used the IGF to reaffirm its leadership for a multi-stakeholder approach which would respect human rights and challenge unethical illegal mass surveillance.

Civil society, on the other hand, was determined to challenge and shame those once seen as the power holders, to express their concerns and demand accountability, and to ensure transparency became central to a new internet governance framework.

Recognising the problem

A common concern and shared recognition brought stakeholders together. All recognised the gravity of the situation (despite some playing it down by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” surveillance) which was deemed to require an urgent response to strike a balance between States’ sovereign obligations to protect their citizens, and individuals’ rights to access of information, freedom of expression, and privacy.

Over the last few months, governments, internet service providers, and telecos have come under fire and have gradually lost their high moral status following the continuous revelations of their activities. They are now facing judgement from citizens across the world, who feel cheated and deceived into a dependency spiral they fear they cannot escape. Many said further violations could not and would not be tolerate. As Johan Hallenborg, Senior Internet Policy Advisor of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affair noted, “Governments simply cannot afford to lose legitimacy”.

This year’s IGF heavily targeted the U.S. and other Western countries for their mass surveillance programmes and systematic violation of privacy and freedom of expression. They were challenged by other countries, including those with questionable national surveillance policies, and also by civil society and the tech community for their actions and general lack of transparency.  However, Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations, stressed the need to not only focus on these countries but to look at other countries such as China, and last year’s IGF host, Azerbaijan, which are committing equally grave human rights violations. He warned that by focusing attacks on the recently named culprits of mass surveillance (US, UK, etc.), we would exclude them from a multi-stakeholder approach to developing principles to protect the right to privacy, personal data, and freedom of expression.

The new guard of leaders in internet freedom

One clear outcome of the Snowden revelations has been the declining legitimacy of the US as one of the world’s leaders in internet freedom. This became apparent throughout the IGF as countries such as China did not miss an occasion to challenge the U.S. to acknowledge their own poor human rights records.

Whilst the U.S. and China played went tit for tat, others seized the opportunity to purport to establish themselves as “champions” of human rights in the digital age by taking a more productive approach and led the discussions for an open, multi-stakeholder framework.

One of those countries was Brazil, which signalled their intention to lead on this issue by announcing it would hold a summit in April 2014. Ambassador Benedicto Fonseca Filho of Brazil, clarified that the summit will have a multi-stakeholder structure as opposed to a government-led multilateral approach. Drawing from the speech of H. E Paulo Bernado Silva – Brazil’s Minister of Communications –  during the Opening Ceremony, which aligned itself with President Dilma Rousseff’s speech at the UN in September, it is clear that this summit has anchored itself as the next step to establishing an open multi-stakeholder framework, which would challenge the governmental and exclusionary approach which as been dominating the political scene for over a decade. 

Many European and other Western democracies were decidedly silent, whose poor or lack of engagement didn’t go unnoticed. An exception to this was Sweden, which took a strong stance against global surveillance arrangements. In a speech, Johan Hallenborg of the Foreign Ministry reiterated that there is no trade-off between security and privacy. A state can secure itself without violation human rights violations, he said, it just requires a limitation of the powers of the State.

He also took the opportunity to present the fundamental principles recently articulated by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt at the Seoul Conference on Cyberspace. These include: legality, legitimate aim, necessity and adequacy, proportionality, judicial authority, transparency, and public oversight. Whilst falling short of the 13 International Principles for the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance launched in September 2013 at the 24th Human Rights Council, this is a yet another step that contributes to the growing international momentum towards greater protection for human rights in the digital world, particularly the right to privacy.

Important voices absent from the debate were developing States. The lack of participation and leadership from the global South at the IGF belies the fundamental challenge, faced by promoters of internet freedom, that more than 50% of the world’s population still have no access to the internet, and that governments in developing countries are still some of the world’s worst human rights violators, suppressing privacy and free expression through censorship, content filtering and website crackdowns, as well as jeopardising privacy and data protection rights through the unthinking adoption of new technologies.

What next?

It is yet unclear what concrete actions will result from last week’s discussion at the 8th IGF in Bali, but it is certain that momentum has been initiated and it must not be undermined by differing agendas.

We must be realists and recognise it will be impossible to reach a perfect international multi-stakeholder consensus, in Brazil or in any other fora, on how to ensure the protection of human rights on- and offline.  However, our efforts should not only be directed on the outcome, but on the process itself. While we may not always agree on the ‘how’ and the ‘with whom’, it is essential that civil society keep fighting to be part of the discussion and establish ourselves as essential actors in Brazil next year.

For far too long civil society has been excluded from discussions on surveillance and security. We must reach out to new and existing allies to challenge the current power dynamics whilst those historically in power (i.e. the U.S. and the UK) are weakened. Others must be encouraged to follow Brazil and Sweden’s footsteps, and show readiness to adhere to unified sets of principles that provide a framework for international surveillance law that guarantees state security whilst respecting human rights.