Freedom and control in the surveillance age (Part 2)

The Strasbourg Forum met soon after the Paris attacks, at a time of fear. Under such conditions, we ask in this week's feature: can our democracies resist the marginalisation of dissent?

Rosemary Bechler
30 January 2016


Empty shoes replace Paris climate march. Flickr/John Englart (Takver). Some rights reserved.

Empty shoes replace Paris climate march. Flickr/John Englart (Takver). Some 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, former UK Director of Public Prosecutions, at the Convention of Modern Liberty, 2009

Last November, openDemocracy attended the Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy (WFD), an annual gathering of leaders, opinion-makers, civil society activists, representatives of business, academia, media and professional groups who come together to address key democratic challenges. Here is our coverage of the 2015 theme: Freedom and control in the surveillance age.

WFD participants were debating the following: 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 media partners, we were particularly exercised by the issue of media responsibility in the age of terror, but we also wanted to look at a range of issues that have become messy in the most advanced democracies and are rarely considered in tandem - chilling effects; hate speech legislation; de-radicalisation programmes; anticipatory profiling; treatments of protesters, dissidents and whistleblowers; new McCarthyisms - which we have brought together here under the title, the marginalisation of dissent in the surveillance age.

Two sources for the growing illiberalism of democracies have surfaced in recent decades: technological advance and the securitisation of our states against terrorist attack and the commission of crime. As a result, social media users living in democratic societies are now the most intensively surveilled groups in the world. Having lost the presumption of innocence, many of us engaged in fully legal democratic activities such as environmental protest, investigative journalism or simply being Muslim, have found ourselves caught up in an unregulated surveillance web and in societies that are marked by gathering incivility.

This week, we have a special feature on the marginalisation of dissent in our democracies:

The Strasbourg Forum met only days after the Paris attacks, to discuss among other themes, 'lifting the veil of fear - building trust and resilience in diverse societies.' We have been monitoring the fall-out from these events. We begin with a look at how the shift towards the 'securitisation' of our societies leads in unexpected ways to a closing of the ranks in mainstream politics, against our freedom to dissent.

Why dissent is important in a democracy. Democracy makes the power of the state especially dangerous, insofar as its rulers can claim that their policy is derived from the will of the people, and therefore in the general interest.

On Monday, Ben Hayes warns that the end of the Cold War released the west from its obligation to live up to its ideals of civil liberty, free movement, respect for international law and human rights. We now see the result: liberal democracies undergoing a return to authoritarianism and ‘racist populism’, legitimised by mainstream politics. The rise of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, he argues, is a symptom of this, not a cause. Cas Mudde confirms that in 2015, the leader of the far right challenge has been a politician from Europe’s political mainstream: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Tom Barns looks at the way resistance to the latest fall-out from the ‘war on terror’ is meeting with a new raft of state methods to deal with ‘extremism’, and non-violent and legal extremism, “first and foremost”. Nicola Cutcher opens the UK Special Branch Files to confirm that anyone dissenting from the status quo may be branded a subversive or domestic extremist. Why isn’t this a waste of police time, she asks, as well as an infringement of civil liberties?

Securitisation v. freedom and privacy. The 2015 World Forum for Democracy posed the question: Surveillance – the right dose? Its preliminary conclusions affirm that “ The terrorist cannot destroy our democracy — but we can.”

However, calls for enhanced civic engagement over surveillance issues, it continues, “can only be made in functioning democracies with sufficient cyber literacy levels.” On Tuesday, Dia Kayyali, a former activist on the front line with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells us about how that holding to account is done, and the struggle to defend free expression and privacy. Claudio Agosti has made the shift from “trying to protect computers to trying to protect users” by raising data protection awareness, while Matthew Rice and David Lyon investigate different facets of our precious privacy — as a means to any end worth fighting for, and the very precondition for politics.

The counter-radicalisation era we are in. Another 2015 WFD recommendation to national authorities and international organisations: “Policies, programmes aiming at “de‐radicalisation” to be well targeted and not extended to entire groups or geographic areas.” If you have ever asked yourself why the treatment of minorities is a benchmark of a healthy democracy, you should take a look at the set of security policies emerging over the last decade under the heading of ‘de-radicalisation’. Today, Francesco Ragazzi explores the causes and effects of extending police action to major areas of diversity management, such as education, religion and social policy, and “no longer targeting violent extremism, but extremism tout court”.

He argues that this is having a profoundly destabilising effect on our levels of trust and ‘models of citizenship’ without any open political discussion taking place. Arun Kundnani picks up the same critique of false assumptions, claiming that we need more radicalisation, not less, to break out of the “mutual reinforcing of the militarised identity narrative on both sides.” Meanwhile, Petra Gümplová is tracking “a lesson unlearned” in French classification of the Paris attacks as ‘war’ and its extended state of emergency, describing this as “a misconception of what current terrorism is… stunningly ineffective and counterproductive.” Jacob Mchangama, founder of Justitia joins the chorus warning against creating ‘national traumas’, but has five rules for our leaders beginning with “being honest” about the “necessary evil” of measures which must be repealed as soon as the threat subsides. Secondly, “Scope creep”…

Protest, memory, transformation. “Fight terrorism by supporting change towards democracy in the Arab world” is the forthright message from the World Forum for Democracy which inspires our Thursday offering. In the week that marks the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 uprising, and the commemoration of the assassination of public intellectual, Hrant Dink, nine years ago on January 19, we look at protest in Turkey and the Middle East.

Can the hunger for change be erased by the “counter-revolution” regimes? What else might we learn from those who have the courage to dissent? Anyone following this week’s feature may notice that while the response to terrorism in western countries, as Francesco Ragazzi shows, “reinforces the division between the Muslim community and the rest of society”, these courageous and imaginative movements often work in the opposite direction, across the rifts that divide and conquer their societies. Deniz Günce Demirhisar explores the ongoing lifeforce behind the slogan, “We are all Hrant.” Mariam Ali reviews a book that is a must read for all who want to understand how and why Egypt’s 'revolution' happened and why it continues. Debora Del Pistoia and Lamia Ledrisi chronicle the attempt to extinguish the ideals of the 2011 Tunisian revolution and the young people who resist today. And Laurent Bonnefoy describes how in Yemen, moderate figures are being killed, “to clear the field for the emergence of the murderous polarisation of common benefit to all warmongers.” We might conclude, with Demirhisar, that "there is no such thing as solitary emancipation."

Getting our act together on human rights. Today, Friday, Nils Muižnieks, the Council for Europe’s commissioner for human rights says that European governments are “disregarding human rights, circumventing judicial safeguards, centralising powers in the hands of the executive, and treating all citizens as potential suspects.” How do we fight for our rights if we are all losing them? Muižnieks calls on governments and on proper parliamentary and independent oversight. But what is in place, he agrees, is woefully inadequate and now constitutes a “dangerous trend”.

Who, then, will hold our governments and parliaments to account? Marianne Franklin has assembled a strong panel of the kind of people who can inform the public: watch the two clips from last month’s Goldsmiths panel, and you begin to get the broader picture – just how broad it is, taking in on all sides governments and corporations happy to keep us in the dark, is a salutary exercise in itself. Obviously we need to educate ourselves. Look only at the recent securitisation of cybersecurity legislation that caught many in the rights community completely off guard. Here, Andrew Puddephatt and Lea Kaspar explain to us how far we have to go to shift the debate to “an understanding of cybersecurity as the protection of the person”. Civil society has been locked out of the deliberations and we are only now beginning to claw our way back in. But it is Carly Nyst who goes to the heart of the matter: "If disagreeing with your government is a sign of extremism, then what opportunity is there for radical, progressive thinking that challenges the status quo?"

Enter Cathleen Berger, asking if “raising concerns about privacy here, about data protection there” is anywhere near enough. Perhaps it is time we admitted that in this world of ICT’s and wars on terror, we are all dissenters now. Maybe we need a whole “new conception of rights… a positive case for dissent as a wider civic responsibility…. without which there can be no creativity, innovation, disruption, progress and - crucially - democracy.”

Meanwhile, in ‘See also’ in the top slot, you will find two Forum participants, Eleonora Zbanke and Ekaterina Kuznetsova who have been pondering the impact of hate speech, and how to counter it, not in law, but in their everyday lives.

What we can learn from the intelligence whistleblowers: We close our week this Saturday with some heroes for our time: a group who at the Strasbourg Forum together concentrated their fellow-participants’ minds on the democratic challenge like nothing else.

Taking place just after the Paris attacks, it was the intelligence whistleblowers and the activists who support them who posed the keenest questions and had some of the answers. In the ongoing contestation about the fundamental nature and purpose of mass surveillance, intelligence whistleblowers such as William Binney can explain why the current surveillance systems are not designed to stop the perpetrators, and how they could be redesigned to do so, if the General Alexanders of this world and their corporate friends only resisted the compulsion to “own the net” and “collect it all.”

You could have heard a pin drop during Jacob Appelbaum’s address to the Forum, when he summed up the move that all those who are in the know will have to make sooner or later, from a “technologist” to a “human being”. The result – a speech of Shakespearean proportions on the eve of an epoch-making battle: don’t miss. For us ‘waiting human beings’ so to speak, the recipients, it is also a moment of recognition. We learn a lot from Jacob, but thanks to the clarity of the dissenter, are also returned to what we already knew – to what Demirhisar (see above) calls “the human part”.

Thomas Drake makes an important point about how “surreal” is the encounter with an “alien government” in which you end up being the criminal. He didn’t see himself as a dissenter. He believed and still believes he was “defending against my own government who had violated the constitution” and that he had to do this because he had taken the oath to defend the constitution four times. As Edward Snowden says of the same moment of reckoning which happens to all who dissent: “The question is, if I was a traitor, who did I betray?”

Snowden, appropriately, brings this week’s feature on the marginalization of dissent in the age of surveillance to a close, reminding us how much we owe to the whistleblowers, and how important these days it is to defend whistleblowing, for the sake of what remains both of our humanity and our democracy.

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.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData