The information society –progress made and the threats facing public authorities and NGOs

Thematic debate at the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe


“Arguing that you don’t care about your right

to privacy because you have nothing to hide

is no different than saying

you don’t care about free speech

because you have nothing to say.”

 — Edward Snowden


The information society based on freedom of expression (Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and the right to information (Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (CETS, 205)) contributes to the development of democracy based on the transparency of public administration, a pluralistic and informed society, and a society in which every individual has the right to inform and be informed in order to exercise his or her democratic power in political decision-making. In this context, an informed society can become a threat to the incumbent authority if the latter does not wish to make commitments to uphold the transparency of official decisions. During the debate about the challenges facing NGOs as civil society space shrinks, we saw the implementation by the government of Romania of tools proposed by the Open Government Partnership.

Through the development of digital technologies, information appears to be accessible and communicated much more quickly. However, we are still not measuring the extent to which social media shape our perception of the world and guide our political and economic decisions and the ways in which we participate in the public domain. We are sometimes the victims of a digital illusion which makes us believe that we operate in an open society (K. Popper).[1]

The digital information industry has become a source of revenue and power through data banks and algorithms which make it possible to filter and specify the information that we receive. So how can we guide our choices in such a way that information enriches our view of the world? Is the world of education now ready to learn and promote critical thinking?

Who benefits from our private data today? Do we have all of the information that we need to sign a declaration of informed consent? Although it has long been highlighted as a nodal point for the effectiveness of fundamental freedoms and the human condition, the distinction between public and private has become more blurred (H. Arendt, 1983).[2] Mass surveillance, which is legitimised by intelligence laws enacted with the aim of combating terrorism, threatens our rights to privacy. In this context, the international courts are an important remedy for every citizen. But there arises a question as to how far we are willing to go in giving up our rights for the sake of greater security. Are security and the protection of privacy reconcilable? 

In this context, the role of whistle-blowers (individuals and NGOs), thanks to whom our knowledge of the threats is increasing (Amnesty International), is invaluable. Through Recommendation CM/Rec(2014)7 on the protection of whistle-blowers, the Council of Europe has advanced the issue of their protection considerably in a context in which many member states have still not enacted legal instruments of this kind. This is because NGOs and journalists are also victims of spying or piracy. But they do not have the same means of protecting their data that companies do. The Security Without Borders group provides assistance to human rights activists and defenders who request it. Freeware (such as Tor USB, Cryptocat or Telegram) which makes it possible to encrypt information and interactive information tools such as “Do Not Track” (a personalised documentary series about privacy and the web economy)[3] make protection against threats in the digital world accessible to everyone. 

However, what we need most of all is the guarantees that governments and public authorities put in place in order to respect everyone’s fundamental rights. We will therefore have an opportunity to discuss the standards and tools developed by the Council of Europe, including the Internet Governance Strategy (2016-2019) and the Human Rights for Internet Users guide. This exchange will be set in context by a presentation by Mr Sébastien Fanti, a member of the Valais Bar, elected to the post of Data Protection and Transparency Officer of the canton of Valais in Switzerland, and a citizens’ analysis of the draft European Counterterrorism Directive.

This debate, to which the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and other institutions are invited, will provide an opportunity to share experience of protecting the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons and organisations in the current socio-political context within the Council of Europe member states. We look forward to meeting you on 27 January 2017.

[1] The Open Society and its Enemies (1945)

[2] The Human Condition (1983)

[3] Draft drawn up by public broadcasters, journalists, developers, graphic designers and members of independent media from various regions of the world: Upian (production company based in Paris), the National Film Board (Canada), Arte (Franco-German public television channel), Bayerischer Rundfunk (German public broadcaster within the ARD group), Radio-Canada (Canadian public broadcaster), Radio Télévision Suisse (Swiss public broadcaster) and AJ+ (mobile application from the innovation department of Al-Jazeera).