Freedom Online Coalition Acting to Shape Global Norms to Foster Thriving Digital Ecosystems, says US Government

Mr. Andray Abrahamian
Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja

To address the risk of misuse of technologies for domestic and transnational repression, including decreasing online civic space, trampling privacy, and arbitrarily tracking activists, journalists, and perceived critics, the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) is acting to shape global norms and outline responsible practices that allow for a thriving digital ecosystem, according the United States Government, which chairs the Coalition.

Mr. Andray Abrahamian, Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja said this in his opening remarks on behalf of the U.S. Government, as current chair of the FOC, at the session organized by the Coalition on “Collective Efforts to Counter the Misuse of Surveillance Technologies” during the 12th African Internet Governance Forum (African IGF), which took place at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja from September 19 to 21, 2023. The theme of the African IGF was “Transforming Africa’s Digital Landscape: Empowering Inclusion, Security, and Innovation”

The FOC session was moderated by Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), and member of the FOC’s multi-stakeholder Advisory Network. He is also a co-chair of the Coalition’s Task Force on Digital Equality.

The panelists at the session were Ms Emmanuella Darkwah, Senior Manager for International Cooperation at the Cyber Security Authority of Ghana; Mr. Adeboye Adegoke, Senior Manager at Paradigm Initiative; Ms Elizabeth Orembo, a Research Fellow at Research ICT Africa; and Mr. Usman Jahun, Manager, Legislative Affairs at MTN Nigeria, who participated as a representative of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON).

Delivering his remarks on behalf of the U.S. Government, Mr. Abrahamian noted that for over a decade since its founding in 2011, the FOC and its Advisory Network of civil society and private sector experts, have worked to promote an affirmative vision for the use of the Internet and digital technologies globally in line with democratic values.

He said the Coalition stands for an “Internet that is open, interoperable, secure, and reliable governed by a multistakeholder model, where anyone, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or any other factor can realize its benefits without fear for their safety and security.”

Noting that “digital technologies have transformed our lives, opening new avenues for economic, educational, and social opportunities”, Mr. Abrahamian he said on the positive side, the Coalition sees surveillance technologies helping to protect national security and public safety around the globe.

According to him, “When used responsibly and in a manner consistent with international law, these technologies can help law enforcement to combat corruption, counter transnational crime, and protect their populations. “

But Mr. Abrahamian observed that despite its positive benefits, such technologies, including Internet controls, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled video surveillance, and commercial spyware, have also been misused for domestic and transnational repression, decreasing online civic space, trampling privacy, and arbitrarily tracking activists, journalists, and perceived critics.

He said in order to address these risks, the FOC is acting to shape global norms, and to outline responsible practices that allow for a thriving digital ecosystem.

Mr. Abrahamian recalled that the FOC released the Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies earlier this year, and is also developing a set of donor principles that calls on governments to adopt a rights-respecting approach to digital technologies and data collection.

He said the FOC’s task forces are also strategizing on responsible approaches for AI and that, with Ghana’s leadership, the FOC is bringing together stakeholders to demonstrate how Internet policies that respect human rights such as privacy, free expression, and peaceful assembly can benefit societies.

Mr. Abrahamian expressed appreciation for the inputs the FOC has received during consultations in Africa over the past few years, saying the insights influenced its approaches and highlighted the importance of meaningful multistakeholder exchanges such as the panel discussion.

In his introduction remarks, Mr. Ojo recalled that in 2021, following revelations on the indiscriminate sale and transfer of surveillance technology around the world, a group of United Nations human rights experts, made up of special rapporteurs and other independent experts, issued a joint call on all States to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology until robust regulations that guarantee its use in compliance with international human rights standards have been put in place.

He also noted that in March this year, the FOC published the “Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies”, which are voluntary and not legally binding, but set out guidance on how governments can maintain their commitments to respect and protect democratic principles, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, in accordance with their international obligations and commitments, in the responsible use of surveillance technology.

Mr. Ojo argued that while there are obviously concerns about the misuse of surveillance technologies, given the initiatives he had cited and other actions by other stakeholders, there are obviously different efforts to counter such misuse of surveillance technology and that the FOC was seeking to further advance such efforts through conversations during the session.

He said: “It is our intention in this session to provide a platform where more stakeholders from different sectors, including Governments and regulators, civil society, the business and technical community from the African region, can also contribute to elaborating on steps that can be taken to mitigate challenges concerning the misuse of digital technology and tools for surveillance”, adding “Of course, we would also like to further explore the role that the Freedom Online Coalition can play in addressing the trends, which are apparently of great concern to many people.”