Recent statements by U.S. government officials about communications surveillance programs highlight the need for thoughtful public debate on the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and privacy on the one hand, and legitimate law enforcement and national security precautions, on the other. This is not just about the United States. Communications surveillance by any government raises questions about the clarity, necessity, and proportionality of measures taken and their impact on human rights, including privacy and freedom of expression.

International human rights law and standards provide obligations and guidance as governments, companies, and civil society grapple with the impact of new technology on matters of security and privacy. Just last week, Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of government surveillance in which he stated: “In order to meet their human rights obligations, States must ensure that rights to freedom of expression and privacy are at the heart of their communications surveillance frameworks.” International human rights law sets standards that protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users regardless of citizenship.

The Global Network Initiative urges governments, in the United States and around the world, to strive for greater transparency about their laws, regulations and actions in this sphere. Increased transparency will help inform public debate. As governments continue to grapple with the impact of new surveillance technologies and capabilities, the GNI urges officials to include representatives of the public, private and civil society sectors in their policy deliberations. Free expression and privacy will only be protected if all viewpoints are heard.