Blog #2: FOC Working Group Kicks Off 2016 Focus on Emerging Issues in Privacy and Transparency

Emma Llanso and Liz Woolery

New policy questions in the field of privacy and transparency emerge every day.  Whether it’s a new law or regulation that affects how governments access user data or seek content removal from information & communications technology (ICT) companies, or a development in how ICT companies report on government requests and their own TOS enforcement, there are plenty of important topics that fit squarely in the scope of the Freedom Online Coalition’s Working Group on Privacy & Transparency.

As we enter our second year, the Working Group is looking forward to exploring current events and emerging issues in this fast-developing field.  We’ve identified the issue of informal government requests related to restricting to terrorist propaganda as one key topic for investigation and discussion in 2016.  Around the world, governments are using counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization laws and policies that have immense implications for individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Moreover, many governments are imploring ICT companies to coordinate with the government through public-private collaborations focused on countering violent extremism. There is a distinct lack of transparency to the public about the nature and scope of these policies or the requests being made of ICT companies (including the use of companies’ own Terms of Service as a grounds for government to seek content restriction), making this an important topic for the Working Group to explore.

This topic builds on the findings and recommendations of the Working Group’s 2015 Report on Privacy and Transparency Online.  The report, released in November, is the culmination of months of consultations with ICT companies as well as FOC member governments.  Those consultations centered on transparency around practices that affect Internet and telecommunications users’ privacy and freedom of expression, especially government requests to companies for content restriction and for user information.  During the spring of 2015, Working Group members conducted informative interviews with government and company representatives to understand how both groups approach disclosure of information about these requests.

The report maps the current landscape of government and company practices aimed at improving transparency about these requests. It includes a description of key challenges and opportunities that emerged from our consultations, and proposes recommendations for both governments and companies to improve transparency. In doing so, the report has built a foundation that will shape the Working Group’s focus and vision for Year 2.

One finding of the report was the growing public expectation for government and corporate transparency.  In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013, many ICT companies took up the practice of transparency reporting, publicly disclosing data on requests for user information, requests to block or remove content, and other practices that impact freedom of expression and privacy.  Since then, companies have faced increased pressure, both from the public and from other companies, to be more transparent about these requests.  Many of the company representatives we consulted found that taking up transparency reporting was a natural fit with a company’s overarching goals and company missions, while also noting ongoing challenges in designing effective tools. Government officials, too, feel the pressure to disclose more information, while noting potential hurdles. Some officials expressed concern that disclosure could compromise law enforcement or intelligence efforts, or even negatively impact their relationships with other governments or the companies themselves.

In response to this pressure, both governments and companies are seeking new ways to be transparent about matters that affect Internet users’ rights.  While transparency reporting arguably remains the most prominent practice aimed at shedding light on government requests for content removal and access to user information, there are opportunities to grow that transparency.  How to do so will be a major focus of the Working Group’s activities this year.  We will be building on opportunities for increased government and corporate transparency identified in our report, for example:

  • Producing more “qualitative” reporting that provides context and information about policies and processes
  • Disclosing additional data, such as information about content restricted due to Terms of Service enforcement, and the nature of self- and co-regulatory arrangements
  • Responding to specific events or efforts (e.g., combatting violent extremism online) with timely updates, such as data, guidelines, and principles for action

We hope you will join the conversation on these themes and emerging issues through this blog.

The views expressed in this blog represent the views of individual authors, building on the work of the Working Group. They do not represent the views of the Freedom Online Coalition or its members.