10 November 2013


The Council of Europe - busily and oh so deliciously badging itself as Europe's "leading human rights organisation" - has issued a media release (DC140(2013)) with the heading Council of Europe ministerial conference calls for effective safeguards against electronic mass surveillance. Quite so.
Belgrade, 08.11.2013 – Ministers responsible for Media and Information Society from the 47 Council of Europe member states have called today for adequate and effective guarantees against abuse concerning the growing technological capabilities for electronic mass surveillance. This abuse “may undermine or even destroy democracy”, they said.
In a political declaration adopted at the conference “Freedom of Expression and Democracy in the Digital Age: Opportunities, rights, responsibilities”, which has been held in Belgrade this week, the ministers recall that any data collection or surveillance for the protection of national security must be done in compliance with human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights. They also adopted three resolutions mapping out the future work of the Council of Europe in the field of freedom of expression.
The ministers note that freedom of expression and media freedom are threatened today in various parts of Europe, and call on states for political commitment and greater efforts to protect them. With regard to the growth of hate speech in Europe, they underline the need for action both at national and international level.
The ministers strongly condemn physical attacks, intimidation and misuse of power of the State, including unlawful monitoring of communications and other forms of harassment of journalists and other media actors. Failure by authorities to investigate effectively and prosecute the perpetrators fuels a climate of impunity that favours further attacks, they say.
Agreeing to promote Internet freedom, the ministers renew their commitment to do no harm to the Internet and to preserve it as a universal, integral and open space. Unjustified interference in the private life of citizens, they stress, threatens the universality and integrity of the Internet and will adversely affect people’s trust in it.
The ministers propose, among other actions, to:
  • Examine the gathering of electronic communications data on individuals by security agencies; 
  • Prepare guidelines for the protection of journalists and others actors that carry out public watchdog functions; 
  • Complete a guide of rights for Internet users. The draft of this document is now open for consultation with Internet stakeholders.
All, of course, utterly sincere.

The background paper [PDF] features the following comments regarding privacy -
Freedom of expression, privacy and security are conditions, facilitators and guarantee for the exercise of other rights, including freedom of thought, association and assembly in the digital age. If these rights are ineffective or weakened, democratic rights will be undermined and participation in matters of public interest can be compromised. They must therefore be underpinned by the respect of the rule of law. In order to maximise this potential, the Council of Europe might:
a) offer guidance on the concrete meaning and extent of Internet freedom from a human rights perspective, and assess whether or the extent to which freedom of expression is actually respected in the digital age and identify further action needed;
b) elaborate further on the indication contained in the Committee of Ministers recommendation on a new notion of media that regulation affecting freedom of expression is in itself a form of interference and should therefore be subject to the tests of Article 10;
c) work on online privacy, in particular by exploring the rules and conditions for legitimate, human rights compliant access to personal data –both transit and content– and for interception and surveillance;
d) initiate a reflection on human rights aspects of encryption in digital communication, and the conditions for its responsible exercise, as well as the limits and modalities for legitimate interference;
e) explore whether technology is being used to “kettle” users into information-impoverished spaces, limiting choice, diversity and pluralism.