EU internet freedom programme endangered by Commission muddle

Mural on Cairo street, taken in July 2011

Mural on Cairo street, photographed in July 2011. [Joseph Ben Prestel]

EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission appears to have shelved a landmark programme that gave out aid money to help human rights workers, protestors and journalists access the internet.

The ‘No Disconnect’ strategy was started in 2011 to support protestors in the so-called Twitter revolutions of the Arab Spring after the Egyptian and Tunisian governments censored and clamped down on internet users.

Five years later, the Commission looks ready to drop the programme.

Sources who worked on the No Disconnect project—both within the executive and as external advisors—spoke of the lack of coordination dogging the five-year-old scheme.

“Who owns this dossier now? Nobody owns this, there’s nobody fighting for it,” said Leon Willems, director of Amsterdam-based NGO Free Press Unlimited, which the European Commission contracted to assess part of the programme.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the controversial former German defence minister who served as an external advisor to No Disconnect for under a year, criticised the Commission for moving slowly on the programme because it involved too many different units.

The US government has paid out tens of millions of dollars for internet freedom programmes in the past few years, trumping the few grants earmarked by the EU.

Commission spokespeople declined to comment on why No Disconnect is floundering.

The strategy set up by formerDigital Commissioner Neelie Kroes is now in limbo because the different Commission units involved couldn’t see eye-to-eye, according to EU sources with knowledge of the programme.

Willems told EURACTIV that while the executive’s technology unit DG CONNECT organised meetings, officials from DG DEVCO, the External Action Service and DG HOME eventually stopped contacting each other.

“First of all, the people from other departments gradually didn’t show up anymore and secondly, their interest, from a holistic point of view, was very limited,” he said.

In a report published last December, Free Press Unlimited and a handful of other NGOs and consultancies slammed the Commission for mismanaging the programme.

“There is a lack of coordination and continuity of the No Disconnect (NDS) strategy within the European Commission, with the issue being addressed by different services without a clearly defined mechanism to provide an integrated response,” the report read.

Russia, China, Syria

One of No Disconnect’s original goals was to channel development funds to help fight censorship and online surveillance outside the EU.

In 2013, more than three million euros was funnelled through the DG DEVCO-administered European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) to four NGOs working on online human rights and digital security in Cambodia, Iraq, Tunisia, Sudan, Syria, India, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Commission officials refused to name a number of other countries due to security concerns.

One classified grant was given to an EU-based NGO that used the funds to train human rights workers on digital security.

Sources told EURACTIV that grant likely went to boost online security in Russia, Azerbaijan and China.

But since then, the executive’s funding for projects focused on internet human rights seems to have tapered off.

One official with knowledge of the EIDHR said the programme tends to fund more general projects outside the EU that don’t target internet rights. A review of over 150 of the EIDHR’s recent grants categorised under ‘human rights’ revealed only the three unclassified projects from 2013 that were focused on internet security or access.

>>Read: Kroes: We do not need government control of the internet

Delayed start to the Commission’s censorship tracker

A European Commission pamphlet titled ‘Delivering on the Arab Spring’ referenced “the revolutions of 2011” and said No Disconnect was started “to further support such movements”.

But the Commission might have bitten off more than it could chew by pledging support to dissidents in some countries where protests would still continue for several years.

Aside from a few grants to support internet rights, officials with knowledge of No Disconnect say one of its accomplishments is that it brought together technology companies to outline a set of human rights guidelines.

But the executive stumbled over another part of the programme. No Disconnect was supposed to create a platform to document online censorship in real time. Sources who worked on the strategy said that was its most challenging part because the Commission wanted to track internet access restrictions around the world as they happened and focus on countries known for cracking down on users.

The European Commission originally wanted an early version of the platform, now dubbed the ‘European Capability for Situational Awareness’ or ECSA, up and running by 2013.

Three years later, ECSA just moved into test phase.

The Commission quietly released a demo version of the platform in December, when the group of NGOs published their damning report on ECSA’s sluggish progress.

EU sources say it cost around €400,000 to build the demo, which includes ten animated graphs that show the current state of internet access in China, including measures of internet users, outbound connectivity and use of the anonymising browser Tor.

If a usable version of ECSA does go up, sources say it will feature more countries and potentially other details.

DGs with a hand in No Disconnect can’t agree about whether ECSA should be made public. Some officials argue the information is sensitive and should only be shared with public authorities.

According to EU sources, meetings about ECSA have stopped and there’s no indication when a decision might be made on what will happen with the platform.

EU dwarfed by the US’ well-funded internet freedom programmes

Critics of the executive’s fledgling efforts on No Disconnect argue that if the programme fails, the EU’s reputation as a supporter of internet human rights will suffer.

During Hillary Clinton’s tenure as US Secretary of State, her department shelled out $45 million in grants to help dissidents outside the United States circumvent censorship. Congress approved its own additional funds for internet freedom projects.

The few EIDHR grants earmarked for internet access projects suggest EU funds don’t come close to those figures.

While they were both still in office, former Commissioner Kroes met with Hillary Clinton to discuss their funding schemes. But sources say the Commission never agreed to team up with the State Department on a joint internet freedom grant.

Kroes was hit with criticism in 2011 when she chose as an unpaid advisor to No Disconnect the controversial former German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg shortly after he stepped down from office.

Guttenberg, who has been based in the US for several years, told EURACTIV he set up Kroes’ meeting with Clinton.

Among the more than 150 meetings he held as an advisor for No Disconnect, Guttenberg lists talks with former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt and Jonathan Luff, then-digital advisor to David Cameron. He also takes credit for organising Kroes’ meetings with opposition leaders and dissidents during her visit to Cairo in 2013. Guttenberg said he connected with mostly US-based NGOs and companies, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google and Facebook.

According to Guttenberg, the Commission didn’t follow up on a partnership on internet freedom he tried to set up between the EU executive, Stanford University and the Hague Institute for Global Justice. “Stanford and The Hague delivered quickly as opposed to the European Commission,” he wrote in an email.

Guttenberg stayed on as an advisor for No Disconnect for under one year. Like others who were involved in the programme, he complains that coordination was weak and there weren’t many results to show.

“Neelie Kroes showed admirable commitment. But all in all the European Commission was inefficient – too many players and DGs involved. Too slow,” Guttenberg said.

Although he did not receive a salary for advising on No Disconnect, a freedom of information request from NGO European Digital Rights reveals that the Commission reimbursed Guttenberg for more than €25,000 in travel expenses between November 2011 and June 2012.

>>Read: Germany leaves Brussels behind on surveillance tech export controls

Lost opportunity

The European Commission’s slow pace in managing No Disconnect has also drawn criticism from the European Parliament.

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE) tabled a digital freedom strategy in 2011 that included measures for an internet freedom fund. The strategy was adopted by the Parliament the same month the Commission announced No Disconnect. Two years later, Schaake accompanied Kroes on her mission to Cairo.

“If putting the No Disconnect strategy on the back burner or having it quietly disappear is an indicator of a lack of commitment by the Commission and the External Action Service, I think it’s a serious problem,” Schaake said.

Schaake told EURACTIV the EU is falling behind on internet freedom. Although the US State Department has given out more grant money for online rights, she says the Snowden revelations about government surveillance undermined its credibility as a champion of internet freedom.

The EU signed off on guidelines in 2014 that cover human rights online, but Schaake said internet freedom still “doesn’t receive the appropriate political leadership or funds”.

“In that sense it’s a missed opportunity,” she added.

While the Commission has other funding tracks to support human rights, there is no other programme that specifically earmarks funds for online rights or monitors internet access restrictions around the world.

With meetings between DGs at a standstill, it’s not clear if No Disconnect will continue: up to now grant funds have come out of the EIDHR and DG CONNECT coordinated meetings on the programme.

According to Leon Willems of Free Press Unlimited, during his work on the ECSA demo there was no sign of how much money the executive might be willing to put into the platform.

“There’s no funding for it as far as we can find out. We didn’t find anyone who said, ‘You’re wrong, there is funding for it,’” Willems said.

Officials who worked on the programme said it would be “difficult” to secure funding for ECSA.

“If the EU is serious about the vital and crucial importance of the internet as the most important information tool in the world today, then DG DEVCO should dramatically increase funding for internet and human rights projects,” he added.

>>Read: European court’s blow to Hungary could draw similar privacy complaints

Former Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes announced the No Disconnect strategy in December 2011 as a reaction to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The programme was supposed to give out grants to provide dissidents with software and training to circumvent censorship and surveillance. Another component of the programme is the European Capability for Situational Awareness (ECSA), a platform that the Commission wants to track restrictions to internet access around the world in real time. ECSA was supposed to be launched in 2013. The Commission published a demo version online in December 2015.

Under the Obama administration, the US government has provided $45 million in internet freedom grants to dissidents living under 'repressive regimes'. The US Congress has approved additional funding programmes.

  • December 2011: Commissioner Neelie Kroes presented the No Disconnect strategy

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