U.S. Highlights Importance of the Freedom Online Coalition

Remarks by
Lynn Sicade
Director, Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
U.S. Department of State
May 18, 2023

Thank you Chair for convening this special session of the CAJP Committee. I also want to recognize the leadership of Chile in coordinating the work of the GALEP group in support of freedom of expression and journalism. We are proud to be an active member.

Following up on remarks by my colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Enrique Roig on World Press Freedom Day at the Permanent Council, I am pleased to join today’s session to provide more details on the United States’ leadership of the Freedom Online Coalition as this year’s FOC chair.

As DAS Roig mentioned, this Friends Group is of particular relevance as we work collectively within the Freedom Online Coalition under the United States’ chairship this year.

But before I outline our priorities and plans under our chairship, Chair, let me take a step back and provide some broader context.

The Freedom Online Coalition – or “F – O – C” as we call it – was launched in 2011, at a time of heightened expectations around the liberalizing impact of information and communication technologies.

The immense promise of the Internet heralded unimaginable innovations, unfettered access to knowledge, and unprecedented economic opportunities for billions of people.

The FOC was developed to protect the promise of this “network of networks.” and, in the intervening decade, has become a unique international, multi-stakeholder effort to support Internet freedom and promote respect for human rights online.

And yet, the transformative impact of the Internet subsequently led to a series of concerning developments.

The promise of digital technologies has become paired with, if not overshadowed by, concerns about the peril posed by their misuse to repress the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including by repressive governments trying to control populations, to stifle dissent, and to surveil and censor.

Today, this multilateral coalition consists of 37 governments working together, along with the FOC’s multistakeholder Advisory Network – which consists of NGOs, academics, and industry, and other relevant stakeholders – to support the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms online.

We do this by shaping global norms; through multistakeholder engagement; and through coordinating bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives and interventions at relevant international fora.

A key priority of the Freedom Online Coalition is the shaping of global norms through joint action. The Freedom Online Coalition offers its members an informal diplomatic space to share information about current developments, coordinate diplomatic efforts, and address challenges posed by the growing misuse of digital technologies and threats to human rights online.

Of note, the FOC has issued over 20 joint statements on topics ranging from “cross-border attacks on Freedom of Expression,” to “internet censorship,” to “the spread of disinformation online,” to “digital inclusion,” to “a human rights-based approach to cybersecurity policy making,” and many more. All of which can be found on the FOC’s website.

We are pleased that a number of friends within our hemisphere — Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, and Mexico — are all FOC members, and we hope others will consider joining the FOC, as well.

Now on to the United States’ policy priorities under our 2023 chairship.

First, we are focused on the FOC’s original mission to protect fundamental freedoms, including through countering network disruptions. To bolster this work, we in the United States government are working to leverage and increase the resources that we are providing to support access to the uncensored Internet globally.

Second, we are focusing on countering, and building stronger resilience to, the rise of digital authoritarianism and the misuse of digital technologies. Already, the Biden Administration has taken concrete steps to counter the proliferation and misuse of surveillance technologies, including of commercial spyware, and we intend to continue to work through the FOC to advance a number of these efforts.

For example, at the Second Summit for Democracy in March, co-chaired with our colleagues also from Costa Rica, we announced the Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies to highlight the guardrails that prevent misuse and support responsible use of these tools. Seven countries in this region have endorsed these principles.

Third, we are also focusing on emerging technologies, namely with respect to enabling the responsible development and use of artificial intelligence in ways that respect human rights.

And, fourth, we are continuing our focus on strengthening digital inclusion, to include efforts to support ongoing initiatives to promote safe online spaces, particularly for women and girls, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

Chair, we recognize the important role which the OAS and the Inter American Human Rights System play in supporting freedom of expression.

With this in mind, we would like to explore options on how the GALEP Group, as well as the Inter American Commission – through its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and the new Center for Media Integrity in the Americas – can support and help advance the goals of the Freedom Online Coalition and vice versa.

We look forward to hosting further discussions on this option in the coming weeks following the OAS General Assembly, working in partnership with Chile and other FOC members.

Thank you again for the chance to engage with you all, whether it be here at the OAS, within the FOC, or bilaterally in the coming months as we work together to protect and promote Internet freedom.

Let me close by quoting from Special Presidential Advisor for the Americas Chris Dodd last month at the Council. He spoke about the value of diverse multilateral institutions, noting that “Their focus and membership vary – some include the United States as members and others do not – but in every case, the effectiveness of these multilateral institutions depends upon members’ willingness to step up and meet their obligations.” I would argue that the FOC can serve to support many of our regional institutions’ goals, including the OAS.

Thank you again. I appreciate your dedication, support, and feedback as we work to further bolster the FOC’s role in promoting and protecting human rights online.