13 July 2005. The European WSIS Civil Society Caucus has sent an open letter to the EU commissioner for the information society, Viviane Reding, last Friday. In the letter, the European NGOs ask for further support for civil society involvement in the WSIS process, especially in building a "strong and much needed regional network for the WSIS implementation and monitoring process". The European Caucus also asks for a "constant and constructive dialogue with the EU" about the next summit host country Tunisia. The big picture might have changed, though, due to the London bombings. European Digital Rights and Privacy International have therefore written another open letter yesterday, urging the EU to stop plans for mandatory telecommunications surveillance.
Closer interaction between EU and civil society
The letter is a follow-up to the meeting with the EU's High-Level Group on Internet Governance (HLIG) in late May, where representatives of the EU member states and the civil society caucus had discussed matters related to the Internet Governance field. It also builds on the more or less regular meetings European groups have held with the EU commission and presidency during the last PrepComs. The activists and experts are happy about the progress in dialogue and exchange, but still concerned that it will not suffice and might break down after the closure of the summit process.
In the letter, which had been drafted by Jane Johnsen from the Danish UN association, the European Caucus states that it is "imperative that strong civil society participation is supported and maintained". It also applauds the "leading role" some EU member states have played in building "productive relations with representatives from civil society". There is now a need for thinking about how to ensure this involvement and build on it for the post-summit phase. Implementation and evaluation of the WSIS outcomes have to be done on a national and regional level, and given the strong role the EU institutions have in the information policy field, a close cooperation between all stakeholders will be needed even more after Tunis. This argument is along the lines of overall WSIS civil society since its press statement at PrepCom3a in November 2003, where the civil society plenary had stated
"Any mechanism for the period following Geneva that does not closely associate civil society and other stakeholders is not only unacceptable in principle, it is also doomed to fail."
The letter is a nice follow-up to a press release the EU had issued in early June, where the commission itself had laid out its principles for the next steps in the summit process. It stated
"To ensure the proper implementation of the Geneva Plan of Action and the political follow-up of the WSIS, the EU should insist that this mechanism be simple and efficient, making full use of existing UN organisations and government agencies, and ensuring full participation of the civil society and the private sector."
There is also money needed for this. The European Caucus also asks for financial support - not for its own members, but for civil society groups from developing countries that lack resources to participate in the WSIS meetings in Geneva and elsewhere.
"The status of civil society in the process and true inclusion of all stakeholders depend on allocating financial resources to secure participation for those NGO's, especially from developing countries, that are deeply involved in the process, but constrained in their participation by lack of funding for the high costs of travel and accommodation."
The lack of citizen participation and interest in, or much worse, the lack of enthusiasm for the European Union have become clear after the failed referenda on the EU constitution treaty in France and the Netherlands. The EU must do at home what it has been asking for in the WSIS process - more transparency, more inclusiveness, and more responsiveness to the needs and wishes of its citizens. The institutions seem to have understood this. On Thursday, there will be an "extraordinary debate on Europe" in the European Social and Economic Committee under the title "What can the EESC and organised civil society do to bridge the gap between Europe and its citizens?" The challenge now will be to push this positive attitude away from the insider meetings in Brussels and towards broader consultation and inclusion mechanisms on the European and national levels.
Human Rights - needed in Tunisia
The European Caucus has also made a direct link between the inclusive statements by the EU and the state of Human Rights. The situation for local and international groups in the WSIS host country Tunisia is more than bad, and the pressure towards independent groups has become worse over the course of this year. The letter states this clearly:
"Serious threats are being directed at civil society organizations and freedom of expression in Tunisia, affecting all of civil society's participation in the Tunis Summit."
These circumstances make it still unclear for the groups involved in the WSIS process if they can do their work during the summit in November. Internet censorship and surveillance are ubiquitous in the country, and the European Caucus letter urges the EU to work closely with independent groups on this situation:
"It is the fear of many civil society organizations that the Tunis Summit will neither be representative nor allow for the involvement of civil society organizations, which are deeply involved elsewhere in the WSIS process. It is therefore urgent that international civil society is engaged in a constant and constructive dialogue with the EU, in order to discuss these issues and to ensure that the EU is fully informed of the positions and status of civil society in the WSIS process."
The EU is in a challenging position now, especially after the bombings in London last week. On the one hand, the EU and its member states have been active in public and behind the scenes to put pressure on Tunisia and make it improve the human rights situation. They also have fought well - after initial pressure from civil society groups - in the first phase of WSIS to ensure a prominent place for human rights in the summit declaration.
Human Rights - in danger in Europe
This was the easy part. Information Society commissioner Viviane Reding herself had stated in June:
"The Internet is arguably the most powerful tool we possess for safeguarding freedom of expression and other human rights."
The bombings in London last week have now led to a serious danger for Internet freedom in the European Union. The home affairs ministers of the EU member states - in the usual cheap manoeuvre - are trying to use these attacks now to weaken opposition against total surveillance of Internet and other telecommunications traffic in the EU. The extraordinary meeting of the EU council of ministers for justice and home affairs (JHA council) that takes place today will most probably see a new proposal from the UK presidency on mandatory data retention for telecommunications data. If the EU has understood the human rights concerns related to the Internet's "Whois" database or the practice of private censorship by internet providers - as the Luxemburg presidency assured civil society caucus members during the HLIG meeting in May - will it stand to its human rights commitments now? Or will it give in to the demands of security politicians who just use the London incident as a pretext to push old plans through in an atmosphere of fear and emotions?
European Digital Rights (EDRi), an umbrella organization of 15 digital civil rights organizations from all over Europe, and Privacy International (PI) have sent another open letter yesterday to the UK Presidency and the European Commissioners for Justice and Media. They ask to show restraint in today's extraordinary JHA Council. EDRi expects the UK Presidency to table a new urgent procedure for the proposal on telecommunication data retention, bypassing the European Commission and the European Parliament.
EDRI and PI object to this procedure and fear the proposal has evolved a life of its own, without any convincing proof of the usefulness and benefits and without any analysis on the costs and effectiveness. Bypassing the regular democratic procedure, the press release says, "can only produce strong distrust in the democratic process, thus eroding the very foundations of our society". The letter further states:
"Human rights law matters most when governments and societies face times of crisis. The worst possible response would be to jeopardise those carefully wrought rights by a panic-inspired response. We consider the draft framework decision on ubiquitous data retention a serious violation of the right to a private life and a serious endangerment to freedom of speech."
The whole issue of human rights in the information society has got more than one dimension now. It is no more just about fully ensuring the power of civil liberties like privacy and freedom of speech in the EU, it has also become a matter of democratic rights. The European parliament with overwhelming majority recently had voted against mandatory data retention. The fact that some governments of the member states now try to circumvent this democratically elected legislative in order to infringe on human rights is really concerning. But the parliament has also developed some pretty robust self esteem in the last years, as it has shown in the clear decision against software patents last week. There, the commission and some governments also had tried to ignore the interests of users and citizens. The most important ally in the fight for human rights in the information society in Europe could therefore not be the commission (which also would be ignored by the British data retention proposal), but the parliament. It seems a request for more dialogue between civil society and the EU should not only be directed towards the executive and the ministers, but also to the representatives of the people.
Letter of the WSIS European Civil Society Caucus to EU Commissioner for the Information Society, Viviane Reding, 8 July 2005
Letter of European Digital Rights and Privacy International to the EU Commission and Presidency, 12 July 2005
Mailinglist of the WSIS European Civil Society Caucus