UK, Middle East Uprisings Show Need for Uniform Response from Telecommunications Companies

Washington, DC – As riots rage on in the United Kingdom, law enforcement authorities are seeking to identify rioters through access to encrypted text messages sent over blackberry handsets. Some who follow telecommunications developments have drawn parallels between the use of instant messaging and social media in the United Kingdom and the use of these technologies during the Middle East uprisings that took place in countries such as Egypt. Human Rights First today noted differences between the two situations. “When threatened with nonviolent resistance, the Mubarak regime didn’t hesitate to invoke its significant control over the internet and telecommunications sector to shut down service, to surveil every aspect of users’ online life, and to limit public access to old media and market entry by new media. Egypt’s laws give the ruling authorities near total control over the sector,” said Human Rights First’s Meg Roggensack. “British authorities and telecommunications companies like Research in Motion should have protocols in place and should work through a legal process before personal user data is released during an investigation into acts of criminality.” According to Human Rights First, how governments exercise their authority and how companies respond will influence the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users everywhere. Communications companies face situations like these every day, in jurisdictions with and without robust legal process, and they should commit to three steps to help ensure that their decision making helps to protect and advance the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users, including:

  • Understand the laws governing data privacy and freedom of speech, including hate speech, in the jurisdictions where the company operates.
  • Have clear policies in place to identify the circumstances in which the company will disclose user information or place restrictions on free speech. These guidelines should include the requirement of a legal process and a commitment to interpret government demands and jurisdiction in ways that minimize their impact on users’ freedom of expression and privacy.
  • Inform users of the circumstances in which their data will be turned over to third parties or their communications will be censored.

In addition, companies facing these situations could reassure users about their commitment to privacy by joining the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative to help private sector actors protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users in the face of government demands.


Published on August 10, 2011


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