Can the Freedom Online Coalition live up to its potential?

Watch the full event

Event transcript


Tatiana Tropina
Assistant Professor in Cybersecurity Governance, Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University 

Katherine Maher
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Digital Forensic Research Lab, Atlantic Council

Jason Pielemeier
Executive Director, The Global Network Initiative


Jochai Ben-Avie
Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Connect Humanity

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and welcome to 360/StratCom and today’s session, “The democratic tech alliance you’ve never heard of: How the FOC can live up to its promise.”

My name is Jochai Ben-Avie. I am the co-founder and CEO of Connect Humanity, a fund to accelerate digital equity for all, and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. And I am joined today by an incredible panel.

First up is Katherine Maher, who is the former CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation and currently serves on the secretary of state’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. And she previously participated in the FOC working groups that were considering reforms to the body.

Next we have joining us is Jason Pielemeier, the executive director of the Global Network Initiative. He previously was a special advisor at the US Department of State, where he led the Internet Freedom, Business, and Human Rights Section in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and held the FOC portfolio, and has served on the FOC’s Advisory Network since its launch.

And finally, a pleasure to have with us Dr. Tatiana Tropina, an assistant professor in cybersecurity governance at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. She is a cybercrime expert and a longtime member of the FOC’s Advisory Network. In fact, she is the incoming co-chair of the FOC Advisory Network.

Thank you all so much for being here today.

Never before has the call been louder for democratic countries to take coordinated action in defense of a free and open and secure and interoperable internet—I think I got all of them—at the same time as countries spin up new mechanisms and initiatives to collaborate on everything from supply chains to emerging technology. You know, a more than decade-old coalition for democracies is, you know, driving the defense of a rights-aligned digital world, is at this sort of inflection point in its history.

And so for those a little less familiar with the Freedom Online Coalition, founded in the wake of the Arab Spring, which brought, you know, I think newfound attention and energy and resources to the growing movement for internet freedom and digital rights. The Freedom Online Coalition was launched in 2011 with an original group of thirteen countries. Their mission? To be a proactive coalition that ensures internet-freedom issues are on the international policy agenda as a way to drive concrete policy changes and outcomes.

Since then, the FOC has served as a coordination mechanism to advance internet freedom/digital rights, including in various multilateral and multistakeholder fora. It’s been a place for governments and other stakeholders to discuss and learn about emerging digital-rights threats and developments, to develop policy guidance on key internet policy topics. Shout out to my former members of Working Group One—for member governments to reflect on and further develop their own policies and positions, and from time to time as a venue where governments can take collective action publicly and privately including through periodic statements by members. Today, this democratic tech alliance you’ve never heard of boasts thirty-four member governments.

So today we will dive into the opportunities and challenges for the FOC. We’ll talk about, you know, some of the opportunities that lie ahead as the United States government takes over as chair and discuss the best path forward for this coalition to meet the needs of the moment.

And so to kick off our conversation today, I really want to pick up on the part of the session title “how the FOC can live up to its promise.” And we’d love to hear from everyone on this. You know, what do you think the best version of the FOC would look like if it was thriving, effective, you know, operating at its fullest potential? What would the FOC be capable of? And, Katherine, let’s start with you.

KATHERINE MAHER: Yeah, absolutely.

It’s funny, Jochai; as you were speaking about the beginning of the FOC, I was remembering those heady days. It was a really powerful group of countries when it first got together and there was a lot of expectation around the impact that it would have. The 2011 context was a very different one in many ways, both geopolitically across the globe in terms of where the priorities were relative to our understanding of democratic transitions and sort of the drumbeat of a democratic advance, whereas we’re now hearing the drumbeat perhaps of a democratic retreat, unfortunately, as the data would show us. And a great hope for the—for the power of the internet in terms of its ability to really advance those democratic priorities—and not just a secure, open, interoperable internet, but the idea that an open, interoperable, secure internet would also lead to a robust, thriving democracy.

I think that the FOC, if it were to achieve its greatest potential, it would go back to those sort of first principles upon which it was founded and recognize and articulate very powerfully the connection between pluralistic, open societies and a secure, interoperable, open, free internet. And I think that that is one of the things from a narrative perspective for policymakers that the FOC could be most effective at, really translating between the priorities of the internet governance community; the regulatory community; the role of internet in foreign policy both as a modality of foreign policy, as an associated tool relative to other foreign policy priorities and just on its own terms; to be able to drive that conversation and connection to the overall goals of why the multilateral system is a better system when it has more open means of discourse and governance. And so just drawing that connection.

Having said that, there are obviously some very specific things that the FOC would look like or ways that it would look if it was really to be successful. And I think that that’s really where the meat of this conversation should be, is: Should it be a more expansive network? Should it be a more highly-structured network with greater resources and operating bodies and sort of modalities of functioning? And that’s where I—I mean, I’ve got my own opinions, but I want to—I want to be able to hand it over to my colleagues because you just asked that one question and I think that that’s where the meat of the panel discussion will be.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I have fiercely taken notes for us to come back to a lot of those great points. Thanks, Katherine.

Tatiana, maybe you could share sort of your vision and your take on this, especially if you disagree with Katherine on anything.

TATIANA TROPINA: Actually, I violently agree with Katherine. And my—

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I’m shocked.

TATIANA TROPINA: Yeah, absolutely. But I have a bit of nuances to add, right?

So my involvement with Freedom Online Coalition, of course, doesn’t date back that far. I think I joined at the beginning—no, right in the middle of the work of the working group which was called Internet Free and Secure. There was so much promise in this work. And the coalition and its members came up with very strong statements and documents. And basically, if they could only live by those statements, if they can only live by those promises, sometimes I feel like all the work that has been done by working groups, all the work that Freedom Online Coalition has done since 2011, gets dusted and binned, you know? Once this shiny new document, once this shiny new statement goes out, it feels like, OK, the work has ended.

And if I may add a bit of granularity here, for example, I am participating in various fora related to internet government, foreign policy, cyber norms. And I feel like what Freedom Online Coalition has succeeded in delivering a clear message, but what it has not achieved any success with is internal coordination within its members on the ground. One department knows about this message, goes to, I don’t know… internet governance, and delivers it at the same time as some foreign policy event. Another department comes and delivers an absolutely different message.

And when you approach these people and ask, are you actually aware about your country signing up for these values and even like, kind of promising to live by these values, oh, Freedom Online Coalition, I’ve never heard of this. Or maybe I heard of this, but I’ve never heard about this statement. And what I like about this initial punchline, the coalition you have never heard of, I wonder why? Because this year, for example, Freedom Online Coalition got into G7 communique. So those of us who have not heard about it probably never read this communique. But it also shows the complexity of the environment Freedom Online Coalition operates in. So this is just few new answers, few statements, and I’m happy to elaborate further.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Thank you. Yeah, Jason, I’m so glad you’re up next because you’ve held the sort of FOC portfolio at one of the, you know, member governments. And so I wonder if you could maybe give your perspective, you know, to Tatiana’s question, sort of that, you know, when we don’t always see that kind of coordination and that commitment to the FOC principles sort of across whole of government. And some of—you know, how do we sort of mainstream that further and have that more internalized by the member countries in terms of how they show up around the world?

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, I mean, that’s million-dollar question, not just for the FOC but for just about all foreign policy issues that cross over into domestic policy. But yeah, you know, I had a—first of all, thank you so much for having me on this panel. It’s been an honor to be here with the three of you I really, really admire and respect. And really glad to have a chance to talk about the FOC at this important moment, as the US government is coming in to take the chair.

As you noted, Jochai, I was at the State Department in the sort of 2014 to 2017 period, had the FOC file. Folks may remember that time as kind of the wake of the Snowden revelations. It was a really interesting time to be not only working on these issues, internet freedom, but also to be trying to deal with this kind of internal sort of engagement with other parts of the US government to figure out what is our messaging, what is it that we can say and should be doing to demonstrate that we’re not just rhetorically committed to these human rights based principles in our foreign policy, but, you know, really concretely committed to living up to them domestically and through all of our, you know, various relevant activities, whether law enforcement, or intelligence, or otherwise.

And I think, you know, the working groups were a really useful mechanism, and we’ll maybe kind of explain that a little bit as we go through the conversation. The working groups were the first attempt by the FOC to start to work outside of just the member governments that, you know, early on joined in. And so I think the three of you were involved in the working group one that’s come up a couple times, the Internet Free and Secure. Which was really looking at cybersecurity, and how does—you know, how do we think about cybersecurity through a human rights lens.

I was working at the same time most focused on working group three, which was about transparency and privacy. And that really became about the Snowden revelations, and this question of consistency between commitment and practice. And it was really interesting, because it actually gave us, the Snowden revelations, in a way—at the time, it didn’t feel like a gift—but it gave us an opportunity to go to various parts of the US government that we might not have otherwise naturally thought to engage, you know, as part of the Freedom Online Coalition and our broader internet freedom foreign policy, and say: Look, you know, we got to have some conversations. We got to talk about this. Like, you know, we’ve been saying these things in UN resolutions and in speeches that our principals are giving in various forums. And there’s some really, you know, good questions that we’re getting in response.

And we need to figure out how to answer them. And, you know, so through working group three we were able to get some pretty senior officials from the National Security Division at the Justice Department, from the Office of Director of National Intelligence, to answer some questions from that working group, to engage in a live, you know, video conference, kind of like this. Not public, but with the working group members, and be responsive and sort of talk through how they thought about these things. The Dutch government and U.K. government did similar exercises bringing in some of their internal sort of domestic-focused, security-focused ministries into conversation with the working group.

And that was—it was really interesting. I mean, it was really interesting being the puppet master and trying to coordinate that on the backend, but it was also, I think, really useful for the working group members to have those opportunities to engage, and to see that, look, there are real people here. They do understand these values. They may think of them a little bit different, because operationally their jobs mean different things. But that was valuable. I think, unfortunately, we sort of got over that hump and, you know, things moved on, different priorities emerged.

And so I guess what I way to say about that period is it, to me, demonstrated that you can have this deeper engagement with the sort of foreign policy principle-based mechanism—here, being the Freedom Online Coalition—helping to drive that. It is possible to do that. To do it consistently and robustly is, of course, even harder. But I do agree with Tatiana that that is an important thing for the FOC to be able to continue to demonstrate. Not only, again, to sort of just demonstrate that there’s consistency, but then to be able to then ensure that we are coordinating horizontally better, so that when people from the Justice Department are giving cybercrime trainings in Tanzania, or people from, you know, DHS, Homeland Security CERT are giving trainings to other CERTs in Albania.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I mean, I remember those conversations. I mean, that, for me, as an outside of government sort of participant of those conversations, I think that bringing key stakeholders from across government to sort of seriously wrestle with the kind of questions and sort of value statements, and how does that show up both in foreign policy and domestic policy, and sort of be at the table with people, you know, really engaging with the conversation from across government, was one of the most sort of tangible demonstrations of the value of FOC as a sort of member of civil society at the time.

I want to sort of tie these things—you know, governments go to different fora for different things. You know, I think I want to kind of move quickly through this. Maybe we can go longer than a Vine but shorter than a TikTok on, you know, what is the role of sort of FOC vis-à-vis other multilateral and multistakeholder bodies? Like, what are the things you—you know, you’re in the State Department, Jason. You have, you know, any number of different coalitions, alliances, fora, and venue that you can go to. What is the sort of stuff you say, well, we ought to go to the FOC for this. We ought to go to another body for that?

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, I mean, I think the obvious connections—the FOC was very much set up, I think, with certain models in mind and, you know, the community of democracies, some of the other coalitions that were being built. Coalitions of the—of kind of likeminded governments around issues that were controversial or where the politics were challenging at the UN, right? So you have these UN bodies, Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly, you know, specialized agencies like UNESCO that have a mandate to deal with human rights issues, but also have to coordinate across all of the UN member states. And that’s tricky.

And so there was a sort of—there has been over time, I think, a strategy that democratic governments, and increasingly nondemocratic governments, have engaged in of kind of building parallel institutions. I, in previous writing, call them creative multilateral initiatives, to help sort of foster better collaboration and coordination in those venues. And so the FOC most concretely has demonstrated an ability to do that in the sort of human rights focused bodies—UNESCO, Human Rights Council, Third Committee.

I think where perhaps there needs to be more focus are on the less human rights-focused bodies. So there are several UN specialized agencies that, you know, have important internet governance responsibilities but don’t see themselves primarily as human rights focused.

There are then other UN specialized agencies that get into, you know, cybersecurity work and capacity building, and then there are other regional bodies like the Council of Europe that also have important mechanisms for multilateral assistance and for norm building, capacity development. And so that’s where I hope the FOC can continue to sort of identify those slightly more adjacent spaces as opportunities.

Sorry. Headphone malfunction.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I’ll take the opportunity of Jason’s headphone falling out to… I’m sorry. I really want to highlight that because I think, you know, in an ideal world, right, we would see sort of digital rights and democracy sort of mainstreamed throughout sort of all conversations, right, and all sort of relationships, and I think the power of the FOC, given its internationally distributed membership, to sort of build those connections between like-minded nations, you know, to sort of act together, you know, at least in sort of loose coordination if not formal collective action, especially in other spaces to make sure that those values are being defended and extended, I think, can be super powerful and I think we saw more of that, frankly, in the earlier days of the FOC.

As we’ve seen some changes in governments, both administrations and just personnel, I think some of that trust and some of that connection has been lost. But I think that’s a super powerful area for a reinvigorated FOC to focus on.

This, I think, sort of also teases up this sort of interesting question of, like, should the FOC be a small tent of, you know, fairly like-minded countries who, you know, because of that sort of limited nature can really sort of more effectively coordinate together, have that high trust and coordination, or should the FOC as a coalition serve as a big tent that is trying to bring more countries in to sort of the democratic rights-respecting folds.

And so I’d love to hear from all of our panelists sort of big tent, small tent, and why.

Ms. Maher?

KATHERINE MAHER: Oh, I was hoping you were going to go to Tatiana, given her more recent work.

Actually, I do have—I do have feelings on it, but I’m actually very curious. And may I throw?



TATIANA TROPINA: So I would say, to me, it’s already not a small tent. I’m sorry. Thirty-four countries in one-fifth of the world number of countries, right. So I do not feel that the Freedom Online Coalition is ready for a larger membership, especially with the states that are not like-minded, and I will explain why.

I think that one of the weaknesses of the Freedom Online Coalition—current weaknesses—it is that it is not clear how the member countries are actually living up to these values, how they’re coordinating among themselves and internally and I already pointed to this.

But, I think, with the growing number of countries, especially those who might be on the fence—some gray areas—you know, you cannot take a superior position and say, you know, well, you have to do your due diligence and, you know, and, basically, we do not have mechanisms to enforce this obligation.

Through the years, I do think that in the complexity of the challenges in this complex environment of, you know, new technologies, developing technologies, right, when I look at the documents of Freedom Online Coalition today what do I see? Before they were talking about, OK, complex but simple issues—cybersecurity, privacy, freedom of speech. Now we see artificial intelligence, gender issues, something else, and it files up, it files up, it files up, right.

So in this complexity navigating the gray zones becomes much, much harder. So I think that either Freedom Online Coalition goes to the basics and extends its membership based on some really identified values and principles and the countries are going to be called out for not following them, or in this complex environment I constantly see that the previous commitments to these basic values are being watered down.

We were talking about multi-stakeholder internet governance ten years ago. Now, all of a sudden, most of the documents are talking about multi-stakeholder cooperation, which is—I’m sorry, it is not the same. It is not the same.

So I constantly feel like from more of a powerhouse, I’m sorry, Freedom Online Coalition is moving to a coordination body, but then what’s the point here? What are you coordinating, right? And how are you living up to this promise?

So I do feel that—I don’t like closed clubs, right? I do not. But I do think that it’s—maybe some models with more involvement, engagement, external outreach, cooperation, agile models, more flexible models might be a good idea, but to become a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, I think that—the Freedom Online Coalition should be careful with how it carries out its business, how committed these countries are to fundamental freedoms, and how Freedom Online Coalition is actually going to coordinate in the complex environment when many states have their own opinions. The Freedom Online Coalition, there would be—sixty states might end up with no statement at all. Look at the UN model, look at the General Assembly and what is going on there.

KATHERINE MAHER: So I’m—may I just jump in there, Jochai?

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Yeah, do it.

KATHERINE MAHER: OK, so one of the things that came up for me—I told you I had thoughts—is really about, is this meant to be intrinsic or instrumental, right? And so the intrinsic worth of an open, interoperable internet is what I said at the very beginning. It is the idea that an open, interoperable internet facilitates the functioning of pluralistic, open societies. It is the idea that it is something that enables the realization of rights and it protects those rights. That, to me, is an intrinsic understanding of the value of the Freedom Online Coalition. An instrumental understanding of the Freedom Online Coalition is simply an open and interoperable internet, which is to say a focus on the protocol sort of level of governance. And I think that that—having some sort of understanding and clarity about that among the members is actually of critical importance. Because of the fact that I think very often we just aren’t clear enough when we talk about open, interoperable internet, that this is meant to be a means to an end, the end of which is actually a position on a form of governance that is the best form of governance. And so if we talk about a broad tent, we need to be clear with the members of that broad tent that they are committing not only to the idea of open, interoperable internet for instrumental reasons, but also open, pluralistic, rights-respecting societies for intrinsic reasons, and I think that automatically makes it much, much clearer, the sort of tents that we are engaged in, how big they are, how far out those stakes are.

Now, having said that, I think Tatiana brings up an excellent point, which is, there is a—I wouldn’t go so far as to say it would be hypocrisy but certainly a lack of consistency within the members as to how and which parts of that commitment they uphold in their own policies, let alone their own sort of functioning capacity of governance and their domestic governance models. And so I think that again returns to this interesting point that Tatiana raised that is always the debate, which is, are we bringing folks into nudge them along the path to better governance, or are we holding the line to say only those who meet the standards of this governance are welcome? And for the multi-stakeholder world, this is an incredibly interesting challenge that is probably true in other sectors but I just don’t know them as well, where we see that very often civil society is the stakeholder that we want to bring into the room on some of these—particularly in some of these countries that are on the edge, and excluding them from the room can have harmful effects, right? It means that they are less well-resourced, less well-networked, less recognized as legitimate representatives of the societies and citizens that they speak for and on behalf of and the rights that they seek to engage.

But of course, it’s very difficult to bring civil society into an entity that is fundamentally a multilateral entity that is based on a states-based recognition of membership. And that always is the tension is, do you exclude the states because they may not live up to the level that we’d like to see, but in doing so actually undermine the capacity of civil society to participate effectively? Or do you bring them in and hope that the whole process of engagement is actually a bit of a nudge? I have to say, I think that at this state of where the FOC is, I am also inclined to align with Tatiana that there is a bit more work to do to clarify the next decade of the Freedom Online Coalition’s intent, purpose, resourcing, and until that that clarification is done, it is very difficult for us to meaningfully contemplate an expansion; far better for us to engage in ad hoc expansions on specific issues, rather than collapse under the weight, as Tatiana said.

I loved that you described freedom of speech and cybersecurity as complex but simple—relative to some of these other issues.

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, I’m going to jump in just to articulate—and I think, Kathy, you did a good job of framing this. But this conversation about the pros and cons of expanding membership to countries specifically has been one that the Advisory Network, which Tatiana and I sit on, has had on a number of occasions, and I think that the member governments of the FOC have also had on a number of occasions, and are going to continue to have. So it’s a really good topic for us to pick up on.

One thing that I have heard concretely—and not to get into the confidential conversations of the Advisory Network, is from Advisory Network members from countries and regions that are underrepresented is a desire to be able to get those countries engaged in these conversations so that they can have more opportunities and better—ammunition is quite a martial analogy—but, you know, better tools to be able to have more meaningful conversations with the governments that they’re engaging with in their day-to-day work as advocates for digital rights. And so I think there is probably a series of creative options that we could imagine that allow for more engagement with these countries that are, you know, on the fence, as Tatiana put it, sometimes, you know, more committed or less, depending on the administration, or depending on the internal ministry or agency and the issue that they’re grappling with, but without necessarily watering down the organization, bringing in a bunch of countries for which the organization is going to just have to continue to answer difficult questions about how does is this organization actually living up to the norms.

So, you know, there is an observer mechanism that was created, in terms of reference, five years ago. And as far as I can recall, I don’t think there’s ever actually been an observer country. So maybe there’s something about that criteria for the observer category that was not, you know, appropriate, and that needs to be tweaked. But there could be mechanisms like that. And I think maybe we’ll talk later about the taskforce sort of engagement structure that has been a kind of recent innovation, sort of builds on the early working group model that we’ve talked about—referred to a couple times here.

That there could be opportunities to bring in states as well as other sort of government actors who are not states, right? There are regional organizations like the European Commission or the African Union, I mentioned the Council of Europe already, that could have sort of interesting overlaps in relevance.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: So what do you think the relationship between the FOC and this kind of regional and supranational—I mean, FOC was, like, this, you know, traditional multilateral sort of member, you know, vote sort of country model. Like, what do you think the relationship between the FOC should be with these regional and sort of supranational bodies?

JASON PIELEMEIER: That’s a good question. It may have to depend a little bit on the—on the body. So, for example, regional bodies like the European Commission and the African Union, organization for American states, are both targets for the FOC, right? Those bodies do their own resolutions and have their own processes that relate to internet freedom. And so there might be useful ways for the FOC countries to better coordinate as to how they’re participating in those bodies. Not all of the FOC bodies obviously participate in those bodies, but enough do, and certain ones, that there could be targets of opportunity.

But then the other sort of direction to engage them is inviting them into conversation with the FOC, and saying: Hey, you know, Council of Europe, for example, you’ve got this new additional protocol to the Budapest Convention, Cybercrime Convention. And we, as the FOC, there have been concerns that have been articulated about that new convention, and some of that—some of the authority that it gives to governments and signatories to be able to give access to data to companies in a more expedited and direct manner than would exist without the convention.

Maybe the FOC, you know, kind of through its collective engagement and resources and the—and the, you know, collective sort of wisdom of the Advisory Network and stakeholders that it brings in, could partner with the Council in terms of, you know, helping to think about ways to implement that protocol, safeguards as you implement those protocols, or kind of bringing those countries that are implementing the protocol into conversations with civil society about how it’s working in practice. Those kinds of things, I think, could be really useful. That takes a lot of capacity. It would require additional resources. But I think there could be some really interesting outcomes if the FOC were to engage in that way.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Yeah. Just—and you and I have talked in the past also about sort of the FOC as a forum for learning, you know, for all the sort of stakeholders who participate. And I think, you know, the new COE protocols is sort of an interesting example where, you know, you could imagine an FOC sort of facilitated workshop about, you know, that protocol and, you know, what it means, and how should member states sort of think about this with input from different stakeholders. Like, I don’t know where there’s another forum, besides sort of ad hoc consultations and trust relationships, to do that. That seems like a cool space—you know, a cool value-add for the FOC.

Tatiana and Katherine, do you have thoughts on it, just real quick, because I want to make sure we get to—we could have this conversation for hours and I want to make sure we touch on a couple other points. But real quick, any hot takes on how the FOC should engage with these sort of regional and supernational bodies?

TATIANA TROPINA: If I make—if I may, I would like to provide European perspective on this.


TATIANA TROPINA: So I think that we are talking about fundamental values of the Freedom Online Coalition and here I very much agree with Katherine. Thank you so much, Katherine.

For me, the fundamental value here lies not only in human rights; it is actually in global connectivity, in the promise the technical layer of the internet protocols, unique identifiers, routine standards, and so on and so forth, but mostly protocol and unique identifiers gives to us and the model of its governance. And I do think that at this stage, at this moment of time, the European Union is taking a lot of regulatory steps in the name of digital sovereignty which are targeting specifically this technical layer, which might, in the long run, break the connectivity.

So the engagement with the European Union and some coordination is absolutely necessary here because its member states are actually members of Freedom Online Coalition. But then the question is, because European Union is layered like an onion—OK, that’s a very bad comparison—it is a complex structure. The question is who you engaged with. European parliament is normally on that side, right, on the side of the Freedom Online Coalition and their fight in these regulatory interventions. Perhaps European Commission, perhaps council, member states.

So identification of the right point of engagement would be crucial here. But I absolutely think that engagement is necessary. I do not think that the European Union should become a member or observer of the Freedom Online Coalition just because of the complexity of the structure.

But I absolutely think that the engagement should not be ad hoc. The engagement should be ongoing, because otherwise we might come to the point when member states and the European Union are declaring their adherence to these values but in practice they’re just not living by them.

KATHERINE MAHER: I guess my response to it—oh, sorry—is, simply, not to speak to Europe per se but, more broadly, is that you can’t influence fora where you’re not in dialogue, and so particularly when we talk about the distinction between the members of the Freedom Online Coalition and those that are outside the proverbial tent or those that are on the fence, the advantage of these regional bodies is that oftentimes they contain a mix.

And so to engage consistently is to create the opportunity to speak to those states that, perhaps, are—on a wide array of issues may have a variety of different postures depending on what the issue might be, as well as those that are outside the tent that we would like to be able to continue to share our priorities with. And so from my perspective, that broader value proposal is one that is—makes it worthwhile.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: If I can use my moderator’s prerogative here, you know, and someone who’s been around, you know, through FOC since very early, like, I think for the reasons that, I think, Tatiana and Katherine in particular sort of picked on I would urge a small tent right now, you know, and really sort of get the FOC to sort of get focused, get reinvigorated, figure out the resourcing and sort of the strategy to really sort of drive action, right, because if we’re not solving real problems in the world, right—if we just get up on our soapbox and we talk about our values and maybe we talk about our values in different places, right, like, the value is in the action.

The value is in advancing a more just, equitable, rights-respecting world, and I think that’s going to be easier to do as you sort of keep things—the official membership smaller.

But I think, as Jason pointed out, you don’t really necessarily—like, just focusing on membership is not the only tool in the toolbox. There are a number of structural opportunities to bring in other people, to have sort of dialogue, as Katherine was saying, and partnership that allows you to sort of work.

And so I think thinking about—and I would encourage our friends in the US government who are holding this file right now to think about, like, what are those structures that might enable that kind of dialogue and sort of meaningful cooperation between these sort of different entities without sort of falling into the trap of thinking is it formal membership or not, and I think it’s also about bringing resources to the table to actually support that sort of broader—you know, if we think about concentric circles of democratic alignment, right, like, I think that there is a group of countries that we do want to influence that are—you know, can be brought more closely, you know, to living and sharing our values. And I think, you know, we should be looking for the strategic opportunities to engage with those countries outside of formal membership, but with the sort of resources to be credible with them.

I think—let’s talk about sort of one of those additional structures just really quick, because I think a lot of folks might not be familiar with the Advisory Network. And so, Jason, Tatiana, maybe you can say, like, a little bit of what is the Advisory Network. And how is it functioning? You know, as Katherine noted earlier, the FOC is, at its core, a multilateral entity, right, that has then—I mean, I remember when we sort of very quickly—we’re like, hang on, you all agreed with us that, like, multistakeholder, you know, governance of the internet, how do we get a seat at the table? And I think, you know, I think the FOC has gone through a couple of iterations of what does it mean to sort of engage civil society.

You know, what does it currently look like? And, you know, what are some thoughts for sort of the future in terms of what it ought to look like to really meet the needs and interests of civil society?

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, I’m happy to start and just—because I was at the State Department and had the FOC portfolio at the time when we went through the work that led into the Stockholm terms of reference, which were adopted, I believe, in 2017, which created the Advisory—among other things, created the Advisory Network.

So there was a broader process of trying to formalize, for example, for a country, what are the criteria for membership? Is there a process for removing a country? None of that had actually been written down at the beginning. So there was sort of a need, as the organization had grown more established and larger, to kind of formalize things.

And so the Advisory Network was one component of that. And the idea was to allow for nongovernmental actors to not just participate on the sort of ad hoc topics, specific conversations, as the working groups had been organized, but to really be positioned to give advice to the FOC chair and the friends of the chair, which is the kind of executive committee, if you will, of the larger FOC.

And so, yeah. So it’s—there have been—we’re sort of into the second three-year term of that Advisory Network. Every three years it’s meant to sort of be open and different members cycle out, and there’s a call for applications of new members to join. The membership is open to anyone who is considered sort of nonstate. So there are private-sector representatives. There are academics, like Tatiana. There are civil-society organizations represented. And I think, over time, there’s also been a real attempt to get more majority world participation, more diversity along a variety of different criteria.

So it’s a really interesting group, I think. And I think kind of the collective expertise and lived experience of that group has been really valuable. It’s been very valuable to me as a member just to be able to learn from the other members of the Advisory Network. But I think it’s also been valuable to the FOC governments to have this sort of sounding board to kind of go—you know, so the way that the relationship is structured, the FOC can formally ask for advice from the Advisory Network. And then the Advisory Network has a period of time to develop a response. But similarly, the Advisory Network can offer advice sort of of its own, without having to be asked. And we’ve done both of those things a number of times on important topics over the years.

And I think that’s—by and large it’s been a pretty good relationship. It has its limits. There’s a cap to the number of people on the Advisory Network., so it can’t be ever, as representative of the really diverse set of interests and expertise and, you know, I think relevance that is out there to the FOC’s work. But the task forces that I referenced earlier that have kind of sprung up alongside the Advisory Network, I think, have become a useful way to engage a slightly larger group of people.

So that’s my two cents on kind of what it is and what it was designed for. Maybe, Tatiana, if you have other thoughts based on your experience or as the incoming chair of the Advisory Network, feel free to jump in.

TATIANA TROPINA: Thank you, Jason. Well, your two cents feel like rather ten cents, because you explained almost everything.

What I wanted to add is only, being on the Advisory Network already for two terms, two and a half terms, this is my last year. And I’m term limited, so very happy to serve as a co-chair, you know, in the last year. But I do feel that a lot depends—a lot of communication and interaction between the Advisory Network and the FOC depends on the chair and on the channels of communication organized by the chairing country.

And in the last year, it especially felt like these channels were very transparent and very ongoing and very well supported by Canada. And this also boosted the activity of Advisory Network as well because, of course, you can—and let’s be honest, this is sort of institutionalized structure, right? Once you have it, it legitimizes your decisions as—or statements of the Freedom Online Coalition in a way, right, but it doesn’t have to be active to legitimize you.

But I do feel that this Advisory Network, with all the help of various chairs through the years, became really active and created its own process and institutions between its—between the members and within itself. And I do think that this is a network, which is so rich in expertise, it’s really beneficial for the Freedom Online Coalition, and personally for me, as Jason said, being a part of this network is such a great pleasure and also a learning curve because I’m learning from the colleagues of this network. And it’s really wonderful.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Thanks, Tatiana. So, you know, I think we’ve long-seen a lot of engagement from sort of various flavors of civil society—you know, from non-profits to, you know, academics—you know, some from the technical community and so forth. But industry has been sort of a, you know, sometimes there. Sometimes the very largest companies have a presence.

But, you know, Katherine, maybe just, like, a quick take from you on, sort of, what is the role of industry vis-à-vis, you know, the FOC, and how should the FOC from a member state perspective be thinking about, you know, industry?

KATHERINE MAHER: Well, I can’t speak for all industry. I can speak from my experience with—

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Not all industry?

KATHERINE MAHER: No, not all industry. I can speak from my own experiences with Wikipedia, and I can speak for what I’d like to see.

My feeling is, is that industry actually should be—should certainly be engaged, should have dedicated points of contact for participation in these fora. It should expect a certain degree of skepticism, but engaged nonetheless, right, from the civil society participants, certainly—and sort of the accountability and feet to the fire.

But I think that the overall take that I have is that industry actually has a—it has equities here in ensuring that bodies like the FOC continue to exist. I think the worst possible outcome for industry, whether it realizes it or not, is the degradation of the multi-stakeholder system of internet, and governance, and of rulemaking.

And the reason for that is that the more that the existing modalities of how we govern the internet writ large—I don’t just mean at the protocol level. I mean all the sorts of conversations that we have around what we’d like to see in terms of normative behaviors and expectations—which often leads to an informed, you know, regulation and policymaking in the domestic context, which, of course, what the industry is actually accountable to—the more that that moves away from a multi-stakeholder process—so the more that that moves away from happening in multilateral fora, the more that industry will be accountable for participating in bilateral conversations between a company and the host country that is operating in.

And when a company is subject to the jurisdiction of the host country that it is operating in without the context of the international community backing it up, either from a rights-based perspective or balancing the policies against what is considered best practices or best standards—both in terms of a rights-based perspective, but also just in terms of feasibility and the protection of its employees or the protection of its practices—industry is actually at a loss.

That is harmful to industry—both in terms of its ability to operate, the actual physical risks that it poses to its users and to its employees and its interests in a country, and in terms of the resources that need to go in to managing those relationships—particularly legal resources because often this ends up in the court of lawyers—the resources necessary to go into managing the concerns and the relationships with government—in terms of government relations, but also the sort of potential for litigation that then occurs when a company falls afoul of whatever conditions may exist.

And so I think that there is actually a fairly self-serving version of the world in which industry should participate in this. It is beneficial to industry to participate in this type of fora, and it is actually, of course, a value to rights-respecting countries and rights-respecting civil society to engage industry in these fora in order to ensure that industry is more accountable and more aligned with the sort of outcomes that we want to see within the business and human rights framework.

And so there’s a net benefit to both sides. Of course there is going to be some degree of accountability and friction that occurs in these areas. But overall the benefits are so significant relative to the alternative that I just—I couldn’t speak more positively for the opportunity to bring industry in, and for industry, of course, to dedicate the resources necessary to be participating meaningfully—and to push their own national governments meaningfully as well.

I think that industry plays a role in upholding the commitments of national governments and encouraging them to see the value of maintaining and resourcing these fora effectively in order for them to be successful.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I will be at least the second person today to violently agree with Katherine. But I will say the flip side, having, like, worked at a company that I made the call to sort of help to downsize our involvement with the FOC when I was at Mozilla, right, is tangible demonstrations of progress, right.

Like, if we’re going to spend time and resources here I think we—you know, I philosophically absolutely see the role of the FOC and to, you know—to play those, you know, various, you know, roles and sort of mechanisms you laid out, but it’s got to actually do it, right. And there has to be that, sort of, solving real problems, being the people that we can, sort of, turn to that, you know—when there is that threat, right, to, you know, our users, you know, around the world, like, we can turn to and say, like, hey, let’s have a conversation about this. How do we actually make sure these folks are defended?

KATHERINE MAHER: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that this is where fora proliferation is a real risk, right. It’s not just civil society that struggles when there are too many fora to participate in. It is also—

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: A thousand percent.

KATHERINE MAHER: Industry doesn’t struggle, per se, it just is going to make choices about where its value actually—the value-add actually is, and it’s then it’s going to allocate budget and resources accordingly. And so it is incumbent on bodies like the FOC to demonstrate actual value in order to continue to sustain.

But then, again, I’ve always been against fora non-profit proliferation—all of these things. I do think that it—when things run out of value it is also time for graceful degradation. So it is incumbent on the FOC to demonstrate it has value. It is incumbent on the FOC to participate meaningfully and return rewards to the entities that it serves.

But I think that has a lot to do, as well, with the nation states that are its members. It’s incumbent on the chairs to demonstrate that they are actually committed to seeing this through, and by all accounts it was a relatively successful year under Canadian chair-ship. And now this is a responsibility that falls to the Americans coming forward, and I think we haven’t talked about that that much. So I don’t know if it’s a good segway.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Absolutely. So maybe in—we’ll do one tweet on the Canadians and one tweet on the Americans.

And so, on the Canadian side, you know, I think—Tatiana, Jason, would love to hear from you in particular. You, sort of, observed the Canadian government up close during their term as chair. Are there any practices the US government should, you know, consider emulating or make sure, sort of, continue to get support in the year ahead—and years ahead?

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, so I think it’s actually the Canadians—you have to start by sort of acknowledging that they took over from the Finnish government, which it chaired the year before, and they had, I think, done also a pretty strong job of, kind of, keeping everything moving, being on top of things, identifying opportunities for the FOC, both internal needs as well as external opportunities.

They were, of course, chairing during the heart of COVID, so it was a bit of a strange time, and there is some real value to the kind of getting people together through the FOC conferences and other adjacent spaces that, I think—that was missed. But I think the Canadians did a great job of picking up on that leadership and they brought their own, sort of, elements and approaches.

The Canadians or feminist foreign policy that has defined this administration’s approach more generally was very evident and I think very useful, and in particular fed in well to the Taskforce on Equitable Inclusion, which has been, you know, something that Advisory Networks—members of the Advisory Network have led.

And so I think they’re really leaving the US in a good position in terms of the, kind of, renewed engagement across a number of different fronts. The US will have, of course, its own approach—questions about how this ties into the Summit for Democracies, the second summit, which will be happening in March, I believe—how this ties into, kind of, broader questions that are being raised around the US approach to foreign policy generally, and then specifically to internet governance.

So it’s going to be an interesting year, but I’m really glad that the US is chairing the FOC at this particular moment.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Jason, that was more than one tweet. Thank you for that rich guidance.

Tatiana, really, in a tweet because I want to get to our last question.

TATIANA TROPINA: In a tweet. Outreach to other communities. Continuity in what has been done and what Canada is doing. Engagement with variety stakeholders, especially civil society. And transparency in what they’re doing, relative transparency in what they are doing and their next steps and how the decisions are made.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Thank you. And so on that model of a tweet comment, we started this conversation with you sharing your sort of visions for what a maximally effective version of the FOC could look like. And to close out our conversation today, I would like to ask all of our panelists if there’s sort of one thing the US government must or must not do as it steps into the chair role to reinvigorate the FOC and help realize that, in our original vision of the FOC, what would you recommend?

Let’s go to Katherine first.

KATHERINE MAHER: Repudiate the vision of a fragmented internet built off cyber sovereignty and speak with commitment, effectiveness, and associated resources to the vision of an open, interoperable, free, and secure internet as instrumental to the sorts of societies—free, open, pluralistic—that we want to live in.



TATIANA TROPINA: Must not forget that at the core of open, free, interoperable, stable internet is the model of its governance, multistakeholder model for its governance. Must not forget that reinforcing this commitment is at the core of Freedom Online Coalition existence.

JASON PIELEMEIER: Yeah, so I will try and do better.

So resources, full stop—more resources and high-level engagement. Consistent—not just a single speech by a secretary of state or an undersecretary, but really demonstrating consistent and broad engagement; real opportunity for the new bureau at the State Department to demonstrate how it’s coordinating across the interagency.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Absolutely. And I think if you do all those things, the FOC and the world will be in an incredible position. I think this is one of the sort of unsung and underappreciated fora, but that is more necessary than ever before. It’s for shoring up the foundation of the FOC, ensuring that it is resourceful internally in terms of its governance and operations, but also in terms of what it can offer to member countries, to nonmember countries, to strategic partnerships, with, you know, regional bodies.

I think that there is an important role for the FOC to play here, and I’m excited to see what the US does during its term as chair. And I think what you’ve heard today is that there’s a lot of wisdom and support out there for the FOC and that our friends who are taking over this file are certainly not alone and have a lot of allies out there.

So thank you all for your—for sharing your wisdom with us today and for all that you do. And thank you to our host, the Atlantic Council, for having us for this conversation.

And finally, if you liked this session, or perhaps especially if you didn’t, there is a whole lot more to choose from at 360/StratCom and a lot of other relevant event information on the official DFR Lab website and their social-media accounts; look forward to checking that out. And thank you for all that you do. Be well.

Related Content

See full event

Internet lights and cables

360/StratCom 2022

December 7, 2022

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) hosts a virtual version of its annual government-to-government forum, 360/StratCom.

Image: A man looking at a phone is seen through a digitally decorated glass. November 23, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song