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In letter to Freedom Online Coalition, NGOs speak out on surveillance of rights organisations

Joint letter from civil society organisations to foreign ministers of Freedom Online Coalition member states regarding Snowden's allegations of the surveillance of human rights organisations

In response to Edward Snowden's testimony before the Council of Europe that the NSA and GCHQ monitored the confidential communications of human rights and civil society organisations, PEN International as part of a coalition human rights organisations sent a letter to members of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) on April 22, 2014 before its upcoming annual meeting in Tallinn, Estonia on April 28-29. The FOC is a leading intergovernmental coalition, currently with 22 members, established in 2011 with the express purpose of advancing Internet freedom (in particular, free expression, assembly, association and privacy online). Both the US and UK are members of the coalition.

The April 22, 2014 letter follows.

Dear Minister,

On April 8, 2014, former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden testified before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) via video-conference that the NSA and the United Kingdom Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have used their surveillance capabilities to spy on the communications of human rights organizations and civil society groups, both domestically and internationally. Snowden did not reveal which groups the NSA or GCHQ have spied upon, but indicated that the types of organizations whose communications had been compromised included major global organizations similar to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and other NGOs.

Snowden explicitly told PACE members that the NSA had "specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or human rights organizations … including domestically, within the borders of the United States."

If Snowden's assertion is accurate, such facts would not only point to fresh dimensions of the overreach of NSA surveillance, but also would constitute an outrageous breach of the US government's stated commitment to human rights and freedom online. It also raises the very real possibility that these organizations' communications with confidential sources have been intercepted. Sharing this information with other governments could put victims and human rights defenders the world over in imminent danger.

The US frequently criticizes repressive states for unjustified government spying on human rights organizations, media organizations, and civil society because such surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association and constitutes a clear form of harassment and intimidation.

Furthermore, as you are well aware, the US and the UK have taken leadership roles in the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), the leading intergovernmental coalition, established in The Hague on December 8, 2011, for the purpose of "advancing Internet freedom - free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online - worldwide." FOC members have joined in a shared commitment to work together to voice concern over measures that restrict Internet freedom and to support individuals whose human rights online are curtailed.

FOC members also have undertaken obligations to adopt and encourage policies and practices, domestically and internationally, which ensure the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online, in particular freedom of expression, the right to privacy, freedom of assembly and access to information.

If the allegations about US and UK surveillance of human rights and civil society organizations are true, such practices would contradict the express commitments made by the US and the UK to the FOC.

We, the undersigned civil society and human rights organizations, seek clarification as to the allegations that the NSA and GCHQ monitored or are monitoring the communications of our organizations, or of other civil society organizations, media organizations, and human rights groups. Where the facts support these claims, we ask the US and UK governments to explain the reasons why this is occurring or has occurred in the past, and the extent of such monitoring, its continuance, and its justification.

We call upon members of the FOC to live up to their stated commitment to support civil society members or journalists whose human rights online may have been violated. We seek FOC member assistance in ascertaining the underlying factual basis for the Snowden allegations with respect to NSA and/or GCHQ spying on civil society and human rights groups, and in ensuring a halt to any violations of our privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights online.



Advocacy for Principled Action in Government


Alternative Informatics Association

Amnesty International


Asociación de Internautas

Association for Progressive Communications (APC)


Big Brother Watch

Bits of Freedom

Breadboard Society

Bytes for All, Pakistan

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for Democracy & Technology

Center for Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information (CELE), Palermo University School of Law

Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India

Charity & Security Network

Committee to Protect Journalists

The Constitution Project


Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Digital Rights Foundation

Digital Rights Ireland

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

Foundation for Information Policy Research

Free Press

Freedom House

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Global Voices Advocacy


Human Rights in China

Human Rights Watch

Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

La Quadrature du Net

Movimento MEGA

New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute

Online Policy Group

Open Net Korea

Panoptykon Foundation

PEN American Center

PEN International

Privacy International

Project On Government Oversight (POGO)

Reporters sans frontières

Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)

Son Tus Datos

Thai Netizen Network

World Press Freedom Committee

World Privacy Forum

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