Edward Snowden: “People think of 2013 as a surveillance story, but it was really a democracy story”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”107951″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]“One of the things that motivated me to come forward was to…see the gap, the distance between what the public understood the laws…to mean…and also what our capabilities were, and how those were being applied,” Edward Snowden said.

Snowden was giving the keynote speech of Open Rights Group’s OrgCon 2019 on 13 July 2019, and he was at pains to emphasise to his listeners the importance of public understanding and awareness of the limits on digital freedom and privacy. “People think of 2013 as a surveillance story, but it was really a democracy story.”

Proponents of increasing democratic accountability would be pleased to see Snowden’s words reaching the public. The Open Rights Group reported a record-setting seven hundred or more attendees. Equally impressive were the number and quality of discussions and workshops available, all with the overarching purpose of educating participants about violations of privacy rights online. The Secret Life of Your Data workshops, for example, traced personal data from its collection on personal devices to the edges of the internet ecosystem, and a discussion of Dragonfly outlined the implications of allowing Google to create a censored search engine for China. 

As participants in these workshops and presentations explored data exchanges and databases of trackers, they wanted to know what they could do to protect themselves. Here OrgCon’s offerings, united by their focus and thoughtfulness, began to diverge. Services like the Crypto Bar, which cheerfully urged attendees to “reclaim your rights online!”, coexisted uneasily with presentations illustrating the power and pervasiveness of the system opposing any individual wishing to do so. In the main lecture hall, a panel discussed the reality of facial recognition in the UK, while another space advertised an exploration of government power over children in “A Safeguarding Dystopia”.

Snowden was aware of the tension inherent in such seeming contradictions. However, he was convinced that a committed group of individuals could resolve it. During the Q&A period, he was asked by an audience member what hope there could be of securing data privacy and internet freedoms when the internet’s younger users were apathetic about both. He replied that understanding your rights online is difficult and time-consuming, so the goal of activists cannot be a universal understanding of the system which deprives internet users of their rights. Instead, it must be a new system which will protect those rights, even for the uninformed. For OrgCon’s attendees, informed by the day’s excellent events, leading the way to such a system might be the best self-protection.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1563194731392-5cbccecb-ae6e-6″ taxonomies=”4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Index at ORGCon 2019

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”106859″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship will be part of the Activist Space at ORGCon 2019.

ORGCon is hosted by Open Rights Group, which challenges the government’s mass surveillance programme to protect free expression online and push for better digital privacy protections.

Join us for a day of discussions, debates and action. Hear some of the world’s leading experts on data and democracy, free expression and digital privacy. Hear Edward Snowden, former intelligence officer in cybersecurity for the NSA, CIA and DIA and whistle-blower talk about mass government surveillance.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

When: Saturday 13 July 10am-5pm
Where: Friends House, 173-177 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BJ
Tickets: From £10 via Open Rights Group


UK government proposals to tackle online harms pose real risk to online freedom of expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”103235″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]The Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ

6 March 2019

Re: Online Harms White Paper

Dear Secretary of State,

We write to you as civil society organisations who work to promote human rights, both offline and online. As such, we are taking a keen interest in the government’s focus on tackling unlawful and harmful online content, particularly since the publication of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper in 2017. In October 2018, we published a joint statement noting that any proposals are likely to have a significant impact on the enjoyment and exercise of human rights online, particularly freedom of expression. We have also met with your officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as from the Home Office, to raise our thoughts and concerns. With the publication of the Online Harms White Paper imminent, we wanted to write to you personally. A number of our organisations wrote to you about this last summer, and your office kindly offered to meet us. We would be very keen to meet in person, if that offer is still open.

While we recognise and support the government’s legitimate desire to tackle unlawful and harmful content online, the proposals that have been mooted publicly by government ministers in recent months – including a new duty of care on social media platforms, a new regulatory body, and even the fining and banning of social media platforms as a sanction – have reinforced our initial concerns over the serious risks to freedom of expression online that could stem from the government’s proposals. These risks could put the United Kingdom in breach of its obligations to respect and promote the right to freedom of expression and information as set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, amongst other international treaties.

Social media platforms are a key means for tens of millions of individuals in the United Kingdom to search for, receive, share and impart information, ideas and opinions. The scope of the right to freedom of expression includes speech which may be offensive, shocking or disturbing. There is a real risk that the currently mooted proposals may lead to disproportionate amounts of speech being curtailed, undermining the right to freedom of expression.

Given this risk, we believe that it is essential for human rights requirements and considerations to be at the heart of the policymaking process. We urge the government to take a ‘human rights by design’ approach towards all legislation, regulation and other measures ultimately proposed. In particular, we make the following specific recommendations:

  • First, the government must set out a clear evidence base in relation to any proposals put forward in the Online Harms White Paper. The wide range of different harms which the government is seeking to tackle in this policy process require different, tailored responses. Measures proposed must be underpinned by strong evidence, both of the likely scale of the harm and the measures’ likely effectiveness. The evidence which formed the base of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper was highly variable in its quality. Any legislative or regulatory measures proposed in the White Paper should be supported by clear and unambiguous evidence of their need and effectiveness.
  • Second, we urge the government to fully to consider non-legislative measures before opting for regulation in this field. Other potentially highly effective options such as increasing public awareness and digital literacy, a curriculum and resource focus on digital skills in schools, promoting “safety by design” amongst tech product designers and developers, and supporting existing initiatives being undertaken, should be set out in the Online Harms White Paper.
  • Third, greater transparency on the part of social media platforms and others involved in the moderation and removal of online content should be the starting point when it comes to any regulation being considered. Transparency should not simply focus on the raw number of pieces of content flagged and removed; it should instead more holistically require platforms to provide user-accessible information about the policies they have in place to respond to unlawful and harmful content, how those policies are implemented, reviewed and updated to respond to evolving situations and norms, and what company or industry-wide steps they have or are planning to improve these processes.
  • Fourth, we strongly caution against proposals which attach liability to platforms for third party content, such as a binding Code of Practice, a new ‘duty of care’ or a new regulatory body. While well-meaning, proposals such as these contain serious risks, such as requiring or incentivising wide-sweeping removal of lawful and innocuous content. The imposition of time limits for removal, heavy sanctions for non-compliance or incentives to use automated content moderation processes only heighten this risk, as has been evidenced by the approach taken in Germany via its Network Enforcement Act (or NetzDG), where there is evidence of the over-removal of lawful content.(1)
  • Fifth, we expect any legislative or regulatory proposals to contain explicit and unambiguous language on the importance of freedom of expression. It is vital that any legislative or regulatory scheme which seeks to limit speech explicitly references the human right to free expression so that this infuses how the scheme is implemented and enforced in practice. Such language should be set out both any legislation ultimately proposed, as well as any secondary legislation or regulatory guidance ultimately developed.
  • Sixth, in recognition of the UK’s commitment to the multistakeholder model of internet governance, we stress the importance for all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, to be fully engaged throughout the Online Harm White Paper’s consultation period, and able to participate in the design and implementation of any measures which are finally adopted.

We appreciate your consideration of these points and look forward to continuing our engagement with your department as the Online Harms White Paper is published and throughout the policy process.

Yours sincerely,[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Charles Bradley
Executive Director
Global Partners Digital[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Jodie Ginsberg
Chief Executive
Index on Censorship[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Jim Killock
Executive Director
Open Rights Group[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]
1. See, for example, Scott, M. and Delcker, J., “Free speech vs. censorship in Germany”, Politico, 14 January 2018, available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-hate-speech-netzdg-facebook-youtube-google-twitter-free-speech, and Kinstler, L., “Germany’s Attempt to Fix Facebook Is Backfiring”, The Atlantic, 18 May 2018, available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/germany-facebook-afd/560435/.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1551880941891-44b3d529-2ac3-9″ taxonomies=”16927, 4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Adopt a ‘human rights by design’ approach towards regulating online content, say civil society groups

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”103235″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Global Partners Digital, Index on Censorship and Open Rights Group are concerned about recent government proposals and announcements related to the regulation of online content, which could have significant adverse impacts on human rights, and particularly freedom of expression. It is well established and accepted that human rights should be protected online as they are protected offline, however proposals and announcements from the government relating to online content in recent months have focused almost entirely on ‘safety’ with little or no consideration for their potential impacts on freedom of expression and other rights.

As well as our concerns over the substance of the proposals and announcements, we also believe that greater coordination among government departments, and collaboration with other interested stakeholders, including civil society, would be beneficial and help achieve more effective policies.

We fully acknowledge the importance of dealing effectively with unlawful and harmful online content, however we are concerned that the failure so far to properly consider the impacts upon human rights when developing legislation and other policies risks undermining internationally agreed human rights laws and standards, especially those relating to freedom of expression.

In particular, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, working with the Home Office, is expected to publish a White Paper on Internet Safety in the winter. The White Paper is expected to contain details of a binding social media code of practice and make mandatory transparency reporting by social media platforms with the aim of allowing the government to monitor and evaluate efforts made by social media companies to ensure online safety. Existing drafts of the Code of Practice and transparency reporting guidelines, however, contain no recognition or reference to the importance of freedom of expression. The government is also considering establishing a new regulator of online content however no details have been provided on its potential remit, powers or degree of independence.

These proposals, and others that have been announced, will all have significant impacts on the enjoyment and exercise of human rights online. Given the potential risks, we therefore consider that it essential that human rights considerations be at the heart of the policymaking process, and would urge a ‘human rights by design’ approach be taken towards all legislation and regulation ultimately proposed.

In particular, we call for:

  • No new restrictions on types of content. Existing legislation restricting freedom of expression already covers a wide range of harmful speech and we are unconvinced of any need for further forms of expression to be prohibited. Existing legislation should, instead, be appropriately adapted to take into account online forms of expression, rather than to prohibit further forms of speech.
  • Any regulation of social media or other online companies to be evidence-based, appropriate, proportionate and in full conformity with international human rights law and standards. In particular, we caution against any regulation which incentivises the removal of content with strict time limits or the threat of sanctions, due to risks of excessive caution and the removal of lawful and legitimate content.
  • Social media companies to be encouraged to develop fair, simple and transparent oversight mechanisms under which requests for the removal of content, whether by users or governments, can be challenged by those affected. These mechanisms should include transparent dialogue with users, including notifying users why a decision has been made.
  • Recognition of the limits to any use of algorithms or automated decisionmaking related to reviewing content, and the need for human involvement and responsibility in content review processes.
  • Civil society organisations, and other relevant stakeholders, to be fully consulted and involved during the White Paper’s development.


Jodie Ginsberg, CEO at Index on Censorship:

“Any future regulatory framework for online platforms must be designed with freedom of expression in mind, not just safety. Protecting freedom of expression should be a guiding principle, including in the proposed code of practice for social media companies. It is a major failing that freedom of expression has been ignored completely in the code of practice.”

“The transparency reporting template must be amended to include information about safeguarding users’ freedom of expression. It is extremely surprising that this has been ignored in the current draft version and it confirms that the government is not paying attention to freedom of expression when developing online regulation”.

Charles Bradley, Executive Director at Global Partners Digital:

“Across the world, from Malaysia to Germany, China to South Africa, we are seeing concerning proposals from governments seeking to regulate online content – and the internet more broadly – in ways that pose real risks to human rights. It is therefore especially critical that the United Kingdom government, whose proposals will be watched closely elsewhere, addresses the legitimate challenges it has identified in a way which fully respects international human rights law and standards. Any proposals should also encourage businesses to comply with their human rights responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles.

“This means that any legal or regulatory frameworks which are proposed should enable and encourage companies to design and implement terms of service relating to online content with which are fully compatible with the right to freedom of expression. They should also ensure that there is accountability and meaningful transparency by these companies when they make decisions relating to online content. By doing so, the UK government has the opportunity to enhance the protection of freedom of expression online, rather than undermine it.”

Jim Killock, Executive Director at Open Rights Group:

“If legal material is censored or incorrectly removed, the result will be that laws are not seen as fair and legitimate. The government says it wants the same rules online as offline: this must include the right to a fair decision, and to assert your right to publish, just as you have in the offline world.

“We hope the government takes this opportunity to discuss with us and others how Britain can get this right.”[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1553267832735-54b2dc9e-3f72-7″ taxonomies=”16927, 4883, 6507″][/vc_column][/vc_row]