Freedom Online Coalition 2015 Conference in Ulaanbattar

This month more than 300 delegates convened to discuss Internet freedom – in Mongolia. Hosted by the Mongolian government, it was the fifth conference of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), a cross-regional group of states committed to working together to advance human rights online.

 Mongolia is stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of Internet freedom. To the north, Russia continues to crack down on the Internet, including through recent legislation requiring that foreign companies store Russian user data on Russian soil. To the south, China remains the world’s most aggressive Internet repressor, and has recently passed or considered a range of measures affecting activists as well as U.S. companies. The rest of Mongolia’s neighborhood isn’t much better. It’s this context that likely drove Mongolia, just celebrating 25 years as a democracy, to join a group of governments committed to rights-respecting Internet policies.

It’s encouraging that hundreds of international guests came to Ulaanbaatar to support this vision. We would have liked to see more tech companies there -- both to support Mongolia in building an ICT industry with human rights protections, and also to engage in an honest conversation about the human rights decisions companies face doing business in the broader region. Transparency is a critical component of doing business responsibly in tough markets like Russia and China. Today, too many companies are entering or operating in these markets without acknowledging the risks.

A recurring theme in Mongolia was that no government or company is perfect. Governments and companies make commitments to human rights principles – as through the FOC for governments, or the Global Network Initiative for companies – and do not always immediately, or consistently, live up to them. All of us can help them implement those principles in practice and hold them accountable. But that takes showing up and committing to a conversation about the hardest issues. 

Katharine Kendrick is a Policy Associate. She focuses on tech issues.