Freedom and control in the surveillance age (Part 1)

What (if any) is the 'right level' of surveillance? openDemocracy's editors introduce a new partnership with the World Forum for Democracy.

Mary Fitzgerald David Krivanek
26 October 2015

Demotix/Ezra Acayan. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Ezra Acayan. All rights reserved. 

“To abolish the distinction between suspects and those suspected of nothing, to place them entirely in the same category in the eyes of the state, is a clear hallmark of authoritarianism.”

Ken Macdonald, the former UK Director of Public Prosecutions, expressed these concerns about the concept of mass surveillance back in 2009 – well before Snowden revealed it was already a reality, in operation all around us.

Democracies across the world today feel vulnerable to a diverse range of threats, from violent extremism to environmental devastation, economic crises, cybercrime and shifting global power dynamics (notably, the growth of China and Russia’s recent foreign policy). There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms.

Since 2001, openDemocracy has probed the passionate and challenging debates that arise from this tension. Now, we are partnering with the World Forum for Democracy (WFD) to push these questions still further. Can democracies deal with security risks linked to the digital revolution without jeopardising freedom and democratic stability? Can they resist the escalation of fear and formulate responses based on civic responsibility and active citizenship? What does ‘democratic security’ mean today? And, most fundamentally, can a balance between security and freedom be maintained in a democratic society?

As part of our six-month partnership, we – Editor in Chief Mary Fitzgerald and Associate Editor David Krivanek – will be attending the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg to interview key participants and report back to readers. We will also be bringing you a wide range of argument on these questions before, during and after the event. What follows is a day-by-day guide to our first World Forum for Democracy Guest Week, laying out the key themes.

Monday, October 26

We kick off the WFD-openDemocracy partnership with a focus on social media, protest movements and activism.

First: is social media more effective as a tool of protest and progressive activism, or of surveillance and repression? Images of protesters in Egypt, Ukraine or Hong Kong using Twitter and Facebook to organise and amplify their demands have inspired people across the world. But what is the actual track record of social media platforms in protecting and empowering civil society? “As global internet platforms seek to expand further into our lives, we’ve seen worrying attacks on the Silicon Valley commitment to support freedom of expression,” writes Brett Solomon of Access Now.

Second, beyond their revolutionary use of social media, the time is ripe to assess the successes and failures of contemporary protest movements – particularly the twin waves of 2011 and 2013. What lessons can we draw from these movements? Donatella Della Porta from the European University Institute investigates.

Third, what ‘activist’ role, if any, should the media play in protecting democratic values? The influential American technology writer and lecturer Dan Gillmor calls on journalists to get off the fence and take an active stance in defending the core freedoms of expression, association, and more. The media has no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake, he argues: “Press freedom is only where we should start as activists, not where we should stop.”

Tuesday, October 27

Gillmor’s call feels particularly necessary at a time when the press often fails to fulfil its watchdog duty, even as our civil liberties are profoundly threatened. Jonathan Heawood of the IMPRESS project asks why the British press reaction to the Guardian’s Snowden revelations was so muted, and points out how the government, secret services and an overwhelming majority of press outlets have acted as such strange yet convenient bedfellows.

This collusion between the media and government is not unique to the UK - just take a look at Russia. Drawing from his personal experience as a leading journalist, Grigory Tumanov shows how censorship has taken a new, smooth turn, whereby self-censorship and the political instincts of media managers have replaced the censorship committees of old. To get published, he writes, “your average Russian journalist has to consider too many factors that don’t have anything to do with his or her work”.

Jean-Paul Marthoz, the EU correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists, will be at the World Forum to highlight the “nerve-wracking disconnect” between the EU’s stated commitments to freedoms of expression and civil liberties on the one hand, and its poor track record on dealing with issues such as TTIP, national crackdowns on liberties (think Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban), and mass surveillance on the other. This tension, Marthoz argues, severely undermines EU attempts to build a world presence based on the promotion of human rights and freedom of expression. As the then Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding put it, “If the EU wants to act as an example for other continents, it also has to get its own house in order.”

Wednesday, October 28

If much of the press has failed to stand up for our rights, the response from civil society has been far more encouraging. Privacy International’s Matthew Rice explores the efforts to build a broad coalition against intrusive surveillance, across continents and sectors of activity. In doing so, he provides a fascinating tour d’horizon of initiatives to safeguard digital rights, from Pakistan to Germany and from the Philippines to Chile.

But what about parliaments? As scrutiny of the security and defence sectors is routinely denied to ordinary citizens under guide of necessary secrecy and national security, Jean Pierre Chabot, James Cohen and Chris Mayer argue that it is the role of parliamentarians to provide such oversight. As Program Director of GOPAC, the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, Chabot provides practical advice on how to strike the appropriate balance between efficiency and accountability. An excellent read, even if you are not currently sitting in your legislature’s security oversight committee.

Meanwhile Raegan MacDonald, who heads Mozilla’s Public Policy work in the EU, assesses the EU’s track record on surveillance, and deconstructs some of the false premises in the current surveillance debate. Too often, she asserts, “we are presented with a false dichotomy: privacy or security. In reality, to ensure trust online and the continued health of the internet, we need both”.

Thursday, October 29

Our front page leads with a devastating indictment of the political decisions taken in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Veteran journalist Peter Oborne’s exclusive interview with the former weapons inspector Hans Blix, in which Blix agrees that Blair ‘lied’ and misrepresented key evidence provided by the security services, is just the beginning of a damning, forensic account of how parliament and the British public were misled.

Governments’ responses to so-called security challenges are also unpacked in a gripping essay by Georgios Kolliarakis, a researcher at the University of Frankfurt (and speaker at the WFD). He highlights how these responses, both in their underlying rhetoric and in their implementation, have progressively undermined the notion of security as a public good, to turn it into a depoliticised and, crucially, tradeable commodity.

It would be easy to conclude from this, as is often heard, that digital surveillance will bring about the death of our democracies. Not so fast, says WFD speaker Manuel Arriaga. The author and academic turns the surveillance and control issue on its head, to argue that by focusing on the script of surveillance as a lethal danger we have missed a deeper, and more disturbing, change at the heart of our societies.

Friday, October 30

Matthew Linares, openDemocracy's Technical and Publishing Coordinator, exposes the widening gap between extremely fast technological development on the one hand, and our ability to keep up with it on the other. What consequences does this growing rift have for activism, self-determination and democratic dignity?

Meanwhile, Nadim Kobeissi, the creator of widely used cryptography software Cryptocat, discusses the lessons of the Volkswagen scandal for national security agencies. Why do they insist on using backdoor systems, he wonders, when these have always failed in the industry?

We conclude this first WFD guest week with a perspective from Afghanistan. As Faheem Hussain, an assistant professor at State University of New York, Korea, discusses, the growing use of information and communication technology (ICT) by Afghan women has proved a remarkable tool towards their empowerment. But how are patriarchal systems fighting back?

The core focus of the Forum on “finding sustainable answers to threats to democracy in the context of increasing surveillance and control measures exercised by public and private institutions worldwide” is very closely connected both to openDemocracy's new DigitaLiberties feature as well as to our UK, European, oDRussia and ArabAwakening editorial sections, projects including openGlobalRights and civilResistance and many other debates across the site. We encourage you to visit all of these projects to keep to up date with the debates happening across openDemocracy on this theme.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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