Foreign affairs and local struggles: how diplomats can protect your digital rights

At their best, foreign diplomats do work that transcends politics: they can ensure that bloggers remain free from prison or shallow graves, that election processes remain fair and free, and that students can access educational resources in rural areas. They can support activists fighting for the secure and open internet, help enable women and girls to enjoy their fundamental human rights, and call out brutal attacks on demonstrators like the one Turkey’s presidential guards carried out this week in Washington, D.C.

However, their work can also be at odds with human rights. The State Department — the U.S. government’s version of a foreign ministry — is currently considering a dangerous  proposal to require that some visa applicants hand over their social media account names. No one has adequately justified the value of collecting this information, nor is it evident how it would help border authorities determine who gets a visa. Yet it poses severe risks to the freedoms of expression and association. At international forums, bureaucrats also bear some responsibility for shutting out civil society via protocol and procedure. Access Now worked nearly four years to gain accreditation through the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, and it appeared that some diplomats were purposely slowing down our application.

Given the “soft power” these diplomats hold to make a difference for digital rights, it’s worth taking a minute to explore what makes foreign offices tick — and how to wrangle their support when we need it.

Who are these people?

Most countries have active foreign ministries, which handle a range of issues and interactions between their government and others, from foreign policy matters like armed conflicts and humanitarian assistance to economic battles over trade, tariffs, import and export quotas, and economic or nuclear sanctions. Competing priorities clash often. For example, a regime may crack down on the press and censor or arrest bloggers, but fend off criticism from more open countries because its military coordinates with theirs, or its behavior compares favorably to that of its detestable neighbors. These dilemmas show why it’s so important for strong human rights advocacy that puts people over powerful agendas, and doesn’t play favorites for the purposes of horse trading.

Lower-level foreign ministry officials can specialize in certain subject areas, such as cybersecurity or education, but often they must wear a variety of hats and sit on various committees and write speeches for the boss — a secretary of state, a foreign minister, or a permanent representative to the U.N. — on whatever topic the occasion requires. One official I spoke with last week had to jump from a resolution on privacy, surveillance, and data protection, to an effort on access to clean water under the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Often, state officials rotate to different regions and jobs every year or two, which can insulate them from developments or reduce the impact they have — for better or worse.

Don’t be mistaken, though: while they may not know everything to start, people on staff at foreign ministries often learn very quickly. Once they get their marching orders from “capital,” or become an expert on an issue, they will fight tooth and nail for Every. Single. Word. in a resolution or joint declaration to further a state administration’s agenda, or a regional bloc’s priorities. As we can see in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 10-year review outcome document, this can mean the difference between a world where governments are extolling “internet sovereignty” and fragmentation, and one where they put respect for human rights at the center of the internet’s growth.

How do we work with them?

In civil society, we often depend on diplomats to help us access or influence multilateral forums, or government-only bodies. These include places like the U.N. General Assembly, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and other forums for trade and treaty negotiations.

Even in these halls, though, people working in foreign ministries don’t exercise much formal, direct power to bend other governments to their will, unless the ministry they work for is one of the lucky five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Otherwise, they rely on “soft power” tools to fight for what they want.

Let’s apply some of what we know about these tools to the problem of internet shutdowns:

Tool one: Declaring

When state officials make timely, public, and local statements on digital rights issues, it can boost the signal of people who are shut off, tracked, censored, and struggling for full participation in society. During shutdowns, people in foreign ministries can speak for the silenced. Fortunately they’ve got guidance: officials can use the statement the Freedom Online Coalition released at RightsCon Brussels to advocate against shutdowns, and for freedom of expression and the digital economy.

People in foreign ministries can also use social media to increase their impact. Tweets are a way to speak more directly to both governments and media than you can through formal declarations. Access Now has sometimes asked domestic leaders to opine publicly on foreign policy, like when we challenged French presidential candidates to condemn Cameroon’s internet shutdown. But often it’s more effective for local embassies to remind telecom companies, finance and telecom ministers, and local police that shutting the internet down only emboldens extremists, while hobbling entrepreneurs. This makes sense even if you take a narrow view of the diplomat’s role, since ensuring the rule of law for citizens in a foreign nation can lead to the same treatment for your own.

Tool two: Accounting & assessing

Even in the digital age, many policymakers overlook the power of stable, open, and resilient internet connectivity to support economic development and transformation. Tracking and measuring the negative economic impact of shutdowns, and asking internet innovators to tell  stories of the hardship they experience during disruptions, can help civil society and businesses prevent or mitigate future harm. It’s also important to quantify the benefits of connectivity, to build respect for the internet. How do secure and open networks help entrepreneurs, especially women and rural communities? People in foreign ministries are well-positioned to help answer this question, and to produce an evidence base that makes the case for internet connectivity in economic circles. Getting technical, people in foreign ministries can support the spread of knowledge and resources to help activists detect and confirm disruptions on the wire. They could even probe the networks themselves, and report up and downtime on mobile and fixed networks.

Of course, accounting for human rights abuses is also a serious and important role that consular staff should continue to fill. The in-country staff have a unique understanding of local contexts, and ready access to information. You don’t have to issue a report on every country to conduct and publish effective, targeted research on fundamental rights.

Tool three: Supporting digital rights, materially and in process

Let’s not overlook the importance of providing material support. Access Now and our partners receive crucial funding from development agencies established by governments like Sweden and the Netherlands. Other groups have benefitted from the $145 million in funding from the U.S. State Department’s Internet Freedom program. Program managers help civil society to reach mutual goals, like defending the open internet, supporting the use of circumvention tools, and safeguarding the digital security of human rights defenders.

Defending open and inclusive processes and procedures can be as important or even more important than offering substantive support. In trade negotiations, for example, you can see even the best of intentions take policy down a harmful path in closed, secretive, government-only forums, where civil society has no voice. Inclusive policymaking on digital rights means giving the public access to preparatory documents, bringing civil society into the room, ensuring that technologists and policymakers meet on even footing, and boosting voices of marginalized and vulnerable people. Key drivers of accessible and robust policymaking might be travel support funding to enable activists to attend far-flung conferences like the Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF), or remotely participate via streaming connections.

Tool four: Cooperating, with principles

Much ink is shed over the breakdown of global systems and threats to diplomatic order. While the average foreign diplomat can’t solve those problems any more than you or I could, a diplomat can fulfill an essential function: showing local governments, business leaders, and activists that the world is watching and ready to condemn actions that violate digital rights. This function gains importance as major news media close their foreign bureaus and stop funding international coverage. What can seem like tedious paper shuffling, shop talking, and comma-shifting at venues like the Human Rights Council, the Global Conference on Cyber Space, or the Internet Governance Forum can have its place in making change happen, so long as diplomats fight for openness and civil society participation just as hard as they do for the agenda of the nations they represent.

Remember: foreign officers depend on the internet more and more for their daily work. They have a responsibility to help protect this platform for free expression and access to information. It is not just the U.S. that has an interest in promoting “Internet Freedom” (though former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certainly prioritized that goal, to immediate criticism). It is in everyone’s interest to keep the internet free, open, and secure.

As diplomats pursue their work, we will be there, watching for any move against the public interest, and standing willing to provide our expertise, contacts, and principles to champion digital rights at every level of diplomacy.