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Privacy and Surveillance are the Elephant in the Room at OGP Summit [UPDATED]

BY Katrin Verclas | Friday, November 1 2013

Intel Free Press/flickr

Privacy, surveillance and the closing of political space for openness and transparency activists in many countries was the hot issue at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in London that was left largely unaddressed by the OGP member countries present.

A group of civil society organizations have now responded to what they see as a lack of attention to these critical issues in the proceedings and commitments that comprise the OGP process. The OGP is a voluntary consortium of now 62 countries that was formed in 2011 to “provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. In all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms.”

The letter, published on the Web Foundation’s website, is being circulated widely.

It states, in part:

We join other civil society organisations, human rights groups, academics and ordinary citizens in expressing our grave concern over allegations that governments around the world, including many OGP members, have been routinely intercepting and retaining the private communications of entire populations, in secret, without particularised warrants and with little or no meaningful oversight. Such practices allegedly include the routine exchange of “foreign” surveillance data, bypassing domestic laws that restrict governments’ ability to spy on their own citizens.Such practices erode the checks and balances on which accountability depends, and have a deeply chilling effect on freedom of expression, information and association, without which the ideals of open government have no meaning. As Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, recently said at the United Nations, “In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy.”

The undersigned call on OGP member to do three specific things:

  • Update existing privacy and human rights laws in light of new surveillance technologies revealed this year,
  • Commit in their specific OGP Action Plans to a review of national laws and enact reforms to regulate "necessary, legitimate and proportional State involvement in communications surveillance"; and
  • To guarantee freedom of the press; and to protect whistleblowers who lawfully reveal abuses of state power.

Helen Darbishire, the director of Access Info Europe, a human rights NGO focused on access to information, put it this way: "There are two big concerns. One, there are members of the OGP which are really not respecting fundamental human rights, and second, governments that are generally more progressive with regard to human rights have been violating their citizens’ right to privacy on a massive scale. Those two concerns together create a real challenge that the OGP has to address if it is to have any credibility or legitimacy.”

During one of the few panels that explicitly addressed the issue of human rights and repressive practices against transparency and openness activists offline and online, Frank La Rue, the UN Rapporteur for Human Rights, noted that surveillance for national security has the "perverse effect of eroding the foundations of democracies." He noted that, for instance, a number of candidates in Latin America are funded by drug cartels, a fact that would make the full disclosure of political finance data - following the money of all candidates - a hugely volatile issue.

Similarly, Tim Berners Lee in his closing address to the 60 country delegations and hundreds of civil society openness and transparency organizations, noted that surveillance of citizens has a chilling effect on political participation, openness and transparency, and ultimately democracy.

UPDATE: US Secretary of State John Kerry, who made an appearance at the OGP Summit via videoconference, was questioned during one session by noted Indian social activists Aruna Roy about the persistent surveillance that many countries conduct on their citizens. Using the talking points that the US administration has consistently used in the months since the first revelations of Edward Snowden, Kerry pointed to national security threats citing the Kenya Westgate attacks, and noted that there was “an enormous amount of exaggeration” reported in the media about NSA surveillance but was not specific as to what was exaggerated. Kerry acknowledged that there is a thorough review of NSA practices currently under way by the White House.

Civil society organizations comprise an integral part of the OGP mechanism. They are supposed to be consulted in the development of action plans that member countries develop and then hold those countries accountable to fulfill those commitments. Yet, many civil society organizations have complained in the past about the noncommittal replies from government officials on potential repression of those who promote and use open data or work on transparency efforts.

In much of the world, civil society organizations are under duress and increasingly unable to organize and advocate offline or online. The International Center for Nonprofit Law for instance noted in its Global Trends report on the "increased imposition by governments of restrictions on NGOs' funding sources and on the right of peaceful assembly” as well as increased impediments on NGOs’ ability to communicate effectively over the Internet. The situation looks even worse online: According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, Internet freedom worldwide is in decline, with 34 out of 60 countries assessed in a recent report experiencing a negative trajectory during the coverage period. Broad surveillance, new laws controlling web content, and growing arrests of social-media users drove this overall decline in internet freedom in the past year.

As I am writing this, there is massive post-election crackdown on transparency and openness NGOs and media outlets in Azerbaijan. According to news reports, the office of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDSC), was raided and computers seized. EMDSC is the independent election watchdog that reported on irregularities in the recent Azeri election. In a separate case, one of the most vocal critics of the government, a Baku-based opposition newspaper, Azadliq, is in court for exposing government corruption and reporting on electoral fraud. Its bank accounts are frozen and the media outlet faces closure after 24 years of operation.

Azerbaijan is a member of the Open Government Partnership.

[Note: This article has been updated to include a reference to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks to the OGP, which did include some discussion of the surveillance issue.]

Katrin Verclas is a long-time activist and technologist focused on human rights and democracy issues. She currently works for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

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