In an era of rampant surveillance by governments, is the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) up to the task of ensuring our privacy?

The annual conference of this government coalition that took place this week in Tallinn, Estonia did not answer lingering questions about the coalition’s relevance and credibility.

The FOC, which currently includes 23 member governments, formed in 2011 to advance freedom of expression, freedom of association, and online privacy.  Despite great rhetoric by a number of member governments, the Coalition’s potential has been deeply undermined by revelations of mass surveillance from some of its most active founding members.   

A dominant theme that ran throughout the conference was erosion of credibility and doubt about member government follow-through on commitments to protect freedom online themselves, much less to serve as role models for other governments. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans acknowledged the credibility gap facing the coalition and invited constructive criticism and debate about the proper limits of surveillance.

Yet while the final Tallinn declaration produced by FOC governments asserted that members would “[c]ollectively condemn – through diplomatic channels, public statements and other means – violations and abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they occur in different countries throughout the world,” the declaration says little about reining in indiscriminate surveillance, nor does it acknowledge that mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and violates the right to privacy. 

The meeting came just weeks after allegations emerged that US and UK intelligence agencies have monitored the communications of human rights and civil society organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Sixty civil society organizations have written to the coalition governments to address these allegations, and are still awaiting a response.

It is difficult to imagine that FOC members will be able to lead other governments on the path to freedom and security in the digital realm if they are not willing to hold themselves accountable to the principles they lay out for themselves.