This interview took place on November 20 at the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg. For more coverage of the conference's key theme, 'Freedom and control in the surveillance age', see here.
Mary Fitzgerald (MF): Thanks for being with us. There is a poll that came out two days ago saying that 84% of French people would prioritise security over liberty. And I’ve asked everyone here the same question, do you think that is the right direction for France to go in? Naturally, everyone has said, “No”. So I’m looking for more than that ‘No”…
Tim Karr (TK): Well of course in the aftermath of events like this – I was in New York City on September 11 and I saw the level of rhetoric that politicians and the media came out with - in such an aftermath we have to be very guarded about the decisions we make and one of the things that is encouraging for me here in France at the Council of Europe is that a lot of people are aware that the decisions made by policymakers, the positions taken by the media in the wake of 9/11 in the United States, were mistakes. And I hope we can be sufficiently circumspect here in France, in Paris, to consider those mistakes and be much more guarded before rushing to decisions that might increase the ability of the French Government to not only surveille targeted, suspected individuals, but the general population.
MF: What are the parallels and what are the differences? Are you optimistic or concerned?
TK: Well, you know September 11 was fourteen years ago and a lot has changed in the media around that. There has been an emergence of alternative media and larger discussion in social media that I think will be productive to the debate. I’m hopeful that what is happening here in the Council of Europe seems to defy the consensus. There seems to be a healthy debate about the dangers of diving into a reaction that favours security over liberty. There seems to be a healthy debate about the dangers of diving into a reaction that favours security over liberty.
Admittedly this is a bubble! We are here among advocates, amongst people who are deeply engaged in this issue – but it’s something! From here, hopefully, some of the messages going out have worked.
But the discouraging view is the view that I have seen among politicians in the United States where the leader for the GOP presidential choices, Donald Trump, has suggested that Muslims might consider registering themselves on a National Registry of Muslims. There have been a number of governors who said they would forbid Syrian refugees from entering the United States. They don’t actually have the authority to do that, but the rhetoric sounds fine to them. So, that’s the more pessimistic view.
But there seem to be more voices – particularly more voices in the media that are challenging that narrative and that wasn’t the case in 2001. It wasn’t the case in 2003 when the Bush Administration invaded Iraq. It took a number of years after 9/11 for the media to catch up with the discovery that a lot of the decisions that were made led us into war and the wrong direction.
MF: Faiza Patel [co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program] said on the first day, “We need to accept that we cannot stop every terrorist attack…” Do you agree with that?
TK: I think that is a reasonable statement. There is nothing that we can do through the various screening algorithms that have been put in place by the NSA and others, that are 100% proof.
And I think what we should focus on instead is not necessarily trying to stop everything, but looking at the surveillance systems that actually work. Nobody wants to prevent national security from stopping the next terrorist attack. The question is – are the systems that have been put in place truly effective? Are we devoting our resources to the right types of security?
And we have seen in a lot of reporting since the Paris attacks that mass surveillance wasn’t very helpful in identifying the suspected actors. In fact, it was more traditional means, checking credit card payments, looking at unencrypted e-mails, that identified who these actors were.
MF: Now a question about the media and media narratives around this? Why do we only seem to call those who abuse the name of Islam, terrorists? Why don’t we call Breivik a terrorist, or Dylann Roof? What’s going on there?
TK: It’s a narrative that we need to reconsider. The tendency that you see in a lot of mass culture and mass media is to then lump all of Islam under this title and to ignore the sort of terrorism you see in the United States for example, which is homegrown, that comes out of racism. The tendency.. is to then lump all of Islam under this title and to ignore the sort of terrorism you see in the United States for example, which is homegrown, that comes out of racism. The tendency.. is to then lump all of Islam under this title and to ignore the sort of terrorism you see in the United States for example, which is homegrown, that comes out of racism.
There are plenty of mass shootings related to racism in the United States. And we need to really identify what that ‘terrorist’ true threat is.
MF: How do you change the language?
TK: It’s not easy to do and certainly you can’t rely on the politicians to lead those changes.
MF: That’s why I am asking and when I say ‘we’, I mean the media industry?
TK: I think the media industry has a role to play, but it is less about talking to politicians and giving them the stage on which to make these statements – like Donald Trump. But it’s more about going into the communities that have been most affected by this. Not just the victims themselves, but the communities out of which these individuals came, surrounding Paris, to understand the narratives that are happening there, the problems that exist there, for example, and to start to talk about that.
Even talking to refugee populations coming out of some of those conflict regions and to understand that they are not actually the threat, that they are escaping the threat, and to clarify who it is that we are trying to protect and who it is that we need to track.
MF: I have been thinking about a campaign this week… to get progressive media to sign up to a pledge to change their use of that one word, ‘Terrorism’, and to agree on a universal definition of the term. What do you think are the chances of that happening?
TK: We always have to challenge the dominant narrative that exists in the media and terrorism is not the only word that is problematic. There are references to immigrants as ‘illegal’ and this is a problem in the United States. We need to look at the use of language very carefully. I am not condoning any form of censorship, but an understanding and appreciation of what words mean and what sort of negative impact they can have on certain individuals - is very important.
MF: Yes it would have to be some sort of voluntary sign-up. You couldn’t legislate for it!
TK: (laughs) – That would be completely the wrong style.
MF: How much do you think journalists should be activists for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, for limited state and corporate surveillance? There is a longrunning debate over this in the industry, but on this core issue where it really does affect the ability of journalists to do their job, in the balance that has to be struck of course – where do you stand?
TK: I tend to think that they ought to be activists. Obviously the criticism is rooted in this idea of objectivity: that journalists are windows on the world and not a reflection.
These are issues – freedom of speech, privacy, protecting your sources – that are relevant to the practise of journalism. But it should go beyond simply protecting journalists which of course is important, to looking at the whole information eco-system that creates news and information.
That includes citizen-journalists, people who may be with only a cell-phone on a street corner, and they document police abuse or something of that nature. That is potentially anyone, anyone who engages in an act of journalism needs those protections. And journalists should be advocates for that. Anyone who engages in an act of journalism needs those protections. And journalists should be advocates for that.
They should be advocates for whistleblowers. Whistleblower laws in the United States have been dismantled to the extent that if anyone like Edward Snowden were to come forward, the chances are that that person would be thrown in jail. In fact Edward Snowden left the United States because he was aware of how useless whistleblower protections are in the United States. Journalists need to advocate for better protections.
They also need to make sure that platforms on the internet like Facebook and Twitter and others don’t engage in practises that we consider censorship. So I think journalists need to re-engage and not just with systems that affect them personally but with those of the wider eco-system.
MF: Tim Wilson was very critical in the last session of the media’s general position, reaction to, analysis of surveillance. He said that journalists have been pretty poor at challenging it and asking the key questions. Precisely, apart from where it affects their own interests and interferes with their work – but that is actually a very limited slice of the problem. Is that fair?
TK: It used to be easy to criticise the media because there were really only a few dominant voices. In the United States we had three commercial networks and one public network that provided news and information on the television. And in a situation of such centralised media consolidation, it was easy to level criticism. But now we live in a time where there is a diversity of media out there and for every critique of the tone that the media would take you can hopefully find an alternative. Yes I think the dominant, mainstream media that is dependent on a healthy relationship with government, that is dependent upon a healthy relationship with corporate sponsors has a tendency to sometimes buy into these conventional wisdoms that may be coming out of Washington or from the politicians. But the good news is that we do have emerging alternative media out there that isn’t beholden to many of these same interests.
So that sort of criticism should be taken in that context…
MF: Who do you think out there is doing some of the most interesting alternative media work – apart that is from openDemocracy – ?
TK: openDemocracy of course…Global Voices is a really interesting project. That is a network of global bloggers around the world who have been looking at these issues. There are even advocacy organisations like EFF who are producing original content. Analysis is doing a very good job of it: there are public media outfits in the US that are doing a good job. Democracy Now and War and Peace Report have been looking at these issues and tend to interview people who are actually engaged in these issues and who are not simply pundits who have thirty-second soundbites to offer. So there are a number of alternatives out there – they’re growing, it’s changing. Intercept is a good example of covering the issue of mass surveillance. They are doing interesting work, largely because of a billionaire who decided to sponsor their efforts…
MF: Advocacy organisations and NGOs are indeed breaking more stories in this sphere, but that raises the whole question of funding – so let me ask your thoughts on both of those questions…
TK: Free Press is an advocacy organisation. We generate our own content – we do our own analysis. There are advocacy organisations that have a depth of knowledge on these issues. We have expertise on policy and we oftentimes work very closely with news organisations whenever we create new content, new research for them. These partnerships are really fruitful. I think for these news organisations, increasingly, as they have limited resources, its really important to have a relationship that they can rely on for those special topics.
Now on the question of funding, it varies from country to country. There are foundations that support independent journalism but they tend not to commit for more than a couple of years and then they may move on to a new issue. The expectation is that it is not a permanent relationship. So there are efforts to look at new not-for-profit models that would relieve the tax burden and other burdens on independent media. And then there is the issue of public broadcasting, public funding for media which has always been under assault, at least in the United States.
MF: Of the not-for-profit models – which has been a sort of Holy Grail for the last ten years – what do you think are the more promising innovations in that space?
TK: I think the better ones really specialise on a particular topic, and they could just specialise on the local media itself. There have been some pretty interesting examples, where people are trying to fill the space that has been vacated by reporters from the old radio and television stations that no longer cover the government beat, that no longer go to city halls or state assemblies, that are hyper-local efforts, and that have been very effective.
MF: I see the democratic case for that – but how is it working, how is it sustaining itself?
TK: It is still too early to tell. There have been a lot of failures and fewer successes out there. But there are a lot of experiments going on. We are in a very difficult transition between a media news and information system that was reliant upon broadcast and television to one that is largely reliant on the internet as the means of distribution. We are in a period of transition. It is a very dangerous period because we are losing a generation of journalists. There are journalists being laid off from traditional media outlets who haven’t quite figured out where the opportunities exist in the new models. There are journalists being laid off from traditional media outlets who haven’t quite figured out where the opportunities exist in the new models and that is an important role that foundations can play – they can help bridge that transition. But ultimately the question is sustainability and foundations have proven not to be a particularly good source of that, so you have to look at not-for-profit models, at renewed funding – in the United States, funding for independent media has been funnelled largely to traditional radio and television. But I can see there needs to be a new model for new media.
MF: Tim Wilson also said in his address that mass surveillance is a problem: mass data collection with proper oversight isn’t. He did then go on to qualify that in lots of important ways, but what is your reaction to that?
TK: I think it is a dangerous distinction to make between the two. You know, data collection by whom? To what end ? How secure is that data? You know, data collection by whom? To what end? How secure is that data? There are telephone companies and internet companies that are collecting data and they have been doing this for commercial purposes. Their business model is based on tracking the data of their users.
But it is a somewhat dangerous distinction. The problem is that the entities, often commercial entities, that collect the data haven’t been fully transparent about how they protect it. We have seen also a number of incidents where banking institutions, health insurance companies and others have been hacked and personal data has been released to unknown entities! Any issue of data collection we need to be very careful about…
Even if it’s for government purposes, I think you also have to recognise that there is an alliance between government and corporations in surveillance that needs to be more deeply analysed. And some of these companies need to be helped to be more accountable in the same ways that we are trying to help intelligence agencies to be accountable.
MF: My final question is: what surprised you most in this forum – you have been to a lot of panels and other discussions. There has been a lot of consensus here. But did anything surprise you?
TK: I have to say that that surprised me. Any conference like this tends to bring together likeminded people who tend to agree with one another. But in the wake of the Paris attacks – and this conference started four days after those attacks – I was expecting to hear more of the tone that we heard after 9/11 in the United States, which was, “ We need to punish ISIS at any cost! And if that means sacrificing our liberties, so be it!” And I was surprised that a lot of people here, including French citizens and Parisians, seemed to see that there is incredible danger here in taking that course.
MF: That’s encouraging – thank you very much!
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.