1. Responding to growing pressure on tech companies to respect privacy rights in an age of mass surveillance
Revelations during 2013 of mass data gathering practices by a number of intelligence agencies have called into question the commitment of some governments to ensuring protection of privacy rights, and highlighted the potential chilling effect on freedom of expression and freedom of association.
In response, more ICT companies have joined the handful that pioneered the practice of releasing ‘transparency reports’, which publish the number of government requests or judicial orders to take down or block content under local laws or obtain access to and monitor user data that the company has received and complied with.
US companies have petitioned the US government to allow all such requests, including those authorised by secret court orders, to be aggregated in transparency reports. Some companies are exploring new ways to respond, such as making efforts to strengthen encryption to prevent unauthorised access to user data. Fundamentally however, this is a challenge to principles of accountability, transparency, and governance.
While intelligence agencies can conduct legally-authorized secret operations in order to prevent serious crime and terrorism, revelations over the past year have raised questions as to whether data gathering and sharing is disproportionate, or of questionable necessity. Many questions remain, such as whether existing laws need to change to limit the potential abuse of human rights through mass, untargeted surveillance that new technology enables, including further controls on collecting and sharing metadata, and whether unsupervised data sharing between intelligence agencies has circumvented national laws.
A UN General Assembly resolution to strengthen the right to privacy in the digital age, co-sponsored by Germany and Brazil, received widespread support. The UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism has launched an investigation into some of these questions and will present recommendations to the UN General Assembly next year.
Demand will grow in 2014 for greater accountability from governments capable of mass surveillance and will reopen the question of how the Internet is governed. More companies will try to protect their data by seeking to secure their own “cloud,” and ICT companies will have to continue to push back on untargeted and mass surveillance requests that can have adverse impact on human rights from governments and demand fairer rules for greater transparency. Civil society will also remain vigilant, calling for increased accountability from governments and companies.