FOC Launches Principles to Ensure Donor Accountability, Respect for Human Rights in the Digital Age

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The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), a group of 38 governments working together to protect human rights online and in digital contexts, has launched “Donor Principles for Human Rights in the Digital Age”, a set of principles that establishes an international framework for donor accountability and cooperation on digital issues to ensure that digital engagements and investments are aligned with respect for human rights and democratic values.

The Principles, launched on October 11, 2023, on the sidelines of the 18th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Kyoto, Japan, are in response to a call from civil society stakeholders for development agencies to introduce safeguarding procedures and processes related to digital development and digital transformation programming to better protect partners and local communities from growing instances of digital repression.

They were launched at event co-organised by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), which are the co-Chairs of the FOC’s Funding Coordination Group, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, which represented the U.S. Government as Chair of the FOC for 2023.

The Principles were drafted and negotiated through the FOC, an intergovernmental coalition of 38 member governments committed to ensuring that the use of the Internet and digital technologies reinforce human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, with input from the FOC’s Advisory Network (FOC-AN), an independent multi-stakeholder mechanism of the FOC. Mr. Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), is a member of the FOC-AN.

They were also informed by external stakeholder feedback collected through an open public consultation process. 

The Principles call on governments with international development and assistance programming to advance an affirmative, rights-respecting agenda for a collective digital future that upholds a commitment to “do no harm”.

They are driven by the ideal that donors should invest in digital technologies and data collection only when it is possible to protect against their potential misuse, and when procedures are put in place to facilitate this protection, while also seeking to align with the broader vision that, to enable individual dignity and economic prosperity, technology should be harnessed in a manner that is open, sustainable, secure, and respectful of democratic values and human rights.

The FOC noted that “In recent years, donors have increasingly invested in digital initiatives across international assistance and development sectors, frequently with positive outcomes. As technological innovation has accelerated, however, it has outpaced donors’ ability to constrain potential harms.”

According to the FOC, “In the absence of robust safeguarding, the same digital technologies that have brought benefits to populations around the world have also contributed to the erosion of human rights protections and democratic institutions, processes, and norms. These negative effects have been acutely felt by those in the global majority and especially persons in vulnerable situations who have limited influence over how decisions are made about technologies’ development, deployment, governance, and use.”

The Principles, therefore, seek to increase donor accountability in a rapidly changing digital age by providing a normative blueprint for how donor governments should align their investments and engagements with their commitments to human rights and democratic values. 

The Principles are intended to serve as a resource for donor agencies as they develop strategic priorities and institutionalize processes and structures that shape foreign assistance.

The Principles are grounded in international human rights frameworks, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

According to the FOC, the rights that are particularly relevant to the Principles include freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly; the right to privacy, freedom from discrimination; and the ability to seek, receive and impart information; among others.