FOC Launches Joint Statement on COVID-19 and Internet Freedom

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Mr. Andrew Puddephatt, Head of the FOC Support Unit
Mr. Andrew Puddephatt, Head of the FOC Support Unit

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has launched a “Joint Statement on COVID-19 and Internet Freedom” in which the Coalition’s members committed to refraining from adopting or implementing laws and policies that may negatively affect the enjoyment of human rights or unreasonably restrict civic space online and offline in violation of states’ obligations under international human rights law and call upon governments worldwide to do the same.

The Joint Statement was launched virtually on Monday, June 8, 2020 at an event attended by over 50 participants from academia, civil society, governments and the private sector and moderated by Mr. Andrew Puddephatt, Head of the FOC Support Unit.

The FOC is a group of 31 governments, recently joined by Denmark, committed to working together to support Internet freedom and protect fundamental human rights.

The Coalition said in the statement that:  “We believe that the human rights and fundamental freedoms that individuals have offline must also be protected online. We are committed to working together to support Internet freedom for individuals worldwide, including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, as well as privacy rights online.”

It noted that in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic, “more activities are taking place online than ever before” and expressed concern about “the human rights implications of certain measures, practices, and digital applications introduced by governments in response to the crisis.”

The coalition identified such measures as including the use of arbitrary or unlawful surveillance practices; partial or complete Internet shutdowns; online content regulation and censorship that are inconsistent with human rights law.

It expressed further concern about “the potential short-and-long-term impact of these actions on the rights of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and privacy rights, even after the pandemic is over”, saying that “Lack of accountability and lack of effective remedy for violations and abuses of human rights online pose a risk of reduced trust in public authorities, which, in turn, might undermine the effectiveness of any future public response.”

The coalition identified human rights violations and abuses online as a direct challenge to its goal of protecting and promoting both the exercise of human rights online and an open, free, secure, reliable, and interoperable Internet, adding that it was also concerned about the spread of disinformation online and activity that seeks to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic with malign intent.

Such activity, it said, include the manipulation of information and spread of disinformation to undermine the international rules-based order and erode support for the democracy and human rights that underpin it.

The coalition stressed that “Access to factual and accurate information, including through a free and independent media online and offline, helps people take the necessary precautions to prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus, save lives, and protect vulnerable population groups.”

It called upon governments worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

To refrain from adopting or implementing laws and policies that may negatively affect the enjoyment of human rights, or that unreasonably restrict civic space online and offline, in violation of states’ obligations under international human rights law;

To promote an enabling environment for free expression and access to information online to protect privacy and to refrain from content restrictions that violate international human rights law;

To take appropriate measures to counter violence, intimidation, threats and attacks against individuals and groups, including human rights defenders, on the Internet and through digital technologies;

To immediately end Internet shutdowns, and ensure the broadest possible access to online services by taking steps to bridge digital divides; and

To commit that any actions taken pursuant to emergency measures or laws be subject to effective transparency and accountability measures and lifted when the pandemic has passed.

The coalition members also committed themselves to doing the same.

The virtual launch event featured five panellists, including Mr Mikko Kinnunen, Director General of the Political Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland; Mr Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the US Department of State; Ms Shelley Whiting, Director General of the Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion at Global Affairs Canada; Ms Lisa Vermeer, Digital Policy Advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; and Mr Adeboye Adegoke, Programme Manager at Paradigm Initiative.

The panellists discussed the importance of access to factual information and to open and reliable Internet during the COVID-19 pandemic with Mr Kinnunen, Mr Destro and Ms Whiting emphasizing the role of governments in fighting misinformation and systemic disinformation, and the digital divide.

Ms Whiting further stressed that a gender perspective is integral to efficient government measures during the pandemic while Ms Vermeer pointed to emergency decrees and the need to make them temporary and lawful.

Mr Adegoke underlined the role that the multistakeholder collaboration approach can play where governments lack the ability to understand digital issues, in particular in the African context.

Click the link for the statement: FOC-Joint-Statement-on-COVID-19-and-Internet-Freedom