January 19, 2015 | Posted in:blog, News

In an interview with Glen Greenwald, journalist and author James Risen spoke of how president Obama has normalised Bush’s war on terror. No reform has taken place, no serious reflection, no other ideas on how to proceed have been seriously contemplated other than curbing our civil liberties and, sometimes, rhetorically asking for our consent. The political climate in Europe has given way to a rise of nationalism and other populist ideas, also on the rise in other parts of the world.

We are facing the War on Terror Civil Liberties 2.0.

Freedom of Expression

The aftermath of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has seen world leaders ramp up the old rhetoric of the immediate post-911 landscape. Whilst there was an outpouring of support for freedom of expression (at least some expression) the last weeks have been characterized by fear-mongering and populism.

To begin with, Pope Francis admitted that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, yet he delineates major limitations to it: “You can’t provoke, you can’t insult the faith of others, you can’t make fun of faith.” The Pope also noted that: “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal.” Translation: Freedom of expression = not so much a fundamental human right.

Not everybody agrees with the Pope however – not even everyone within the Christian church. In Iceland a bill is in the works that will be presented to the parliament of Iceland to abolish anti-blasphemy laws. Incidentally, these efforts have the support of the Bishop of Iceland. Legislative reform in these matters is way overdue but nonetheless a major step towards a progressive society where expression may be free, which of course IMMI greatly endorses.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental aspect of a meaningful democracy. Where issues are engaged and not avoided. In order to truly defend freedom of expression, one needs not only to defend ones own right but also to defend the right of others to express views contrary to one’s own. Be it Western media, militant groups in the Middle East, a dictatorship in Africa, or the spying governments of Europe and the US, etc.


UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, wasted no time to seize upon the opportunity to put pressure on tech companies to help facilitate government spying: “We will command all the software creators we can reach to introduce back doors into their tools for us.” He went on to further declare that if he continues as PM after the next UK elections, encryption for communication and Internet use will be no more. But in a secret US cybersecurity report the exact opposite view is argued, namely, that encryption is necessary to protect data (including government data) with other threats out there besides particular terrorist networks. Individuals, businesses and governments all have good reason to protect their data and encryption is absolutely vital in properly doing so.

Surveillance and Chilling Effects

Cameron also called on the major tech companies to work with the government, honoring what he called their social responsibility to fight against terrorism. Cameron seems not to realise or acknowledge that while defending freedom of expression moments earlier he then starts arguing for measures that negate it. Cameron also fails to realise that encryption is a necessary tool to protect data, and there are all sorts of reasons for coveting data protection – not all applying to terrorists it should be noted. There, like in so many other cases, the lobby for the War on Terror fails to respect principles of proportionality, favoring monitoring all to reach the few.

A society where calls, emails, location points, text messages and Internet use are recorded and stored, without a suspicion of criminal offense – ubiquitous in the post-Snowden era – is a society where expression is not free. A study by PEN showed that since the Snowden revelations writers worry greatly about surveillance: they are less likely to write about certain topics, they are less likely to discuss certain topics and research certain topics. In other words, surveillance has already caused chilling effects in the form of self-censorship. This, one can argue, can be extrapolated to society as a whole.

It has repeatedly been argued that mass-surveillance is ineffective, besides undermining our civil liberties, putting businesses at risk and breaking down trust between companies and their clients. Of course, governments can be highly effective in averting terror plots their own secret services concoct, recruit for and plan. One would at least sincerely hope so. Those tax-funded terrorist-plot entrapment-shenanigans also help raise fear levels and a growing public sense of “something is being done”. Glen Greenwald illustrates this in an excellent article published by the Intercept.

There is a great big open space for us to reflect and discuss what, besides cutting our nose to spite our face, – eroding our civil liberties and freedoms – can be done to curb terrorist attacks. It may be argued that the War on Terror has done very little apart from creating a new industry for “terrorism experts”, piled more tax money into defense and national security industries and, would you believe, just perhaps increased the threat and operation of terrorist groups and networks. For instance, it certainly appears that ISIS/ISIL are an offspring of the attacks on Iraq, strengthened also by the civil war in Syria.

Censorship and Access to Information

Our ability to formulate opinions presupposes access to information. The better the information, the better we are positioned to form opinions and ideas. In an age of communication and information, our ability to share, learn and support each other is maximized. However, the double-edged sword of technology also allows the powers that be to control communication and the flow of information, and the freedom of the Internet is continually under attack through repeated efforts such as SOPA, CISPA, PIPA, and so on. Net Neutrality is also under attack, with ISP’s wanting to treat access to the Internet as a commodity to be upgraded or downgraded according various factors (location, price, etc.) which has met great opposition by the online community.

IMMI and the global community of organisations, activists and other groups who fight for human rights online, argue that intermediaries such as ISP’s, hosting companies, social networks, search engines and the like, should not be liable for content and communications, but be viewed only as intermediaries, with the liability being with the uploader of content. That way, companies acting as intermediaries are not given the role of monitoring data and communication. Censorship online undermines access to information, freedom of expression and privacy, as well as the trust between users and intermediaries. The issue of intermediary liability is intimately linked to data protection.

Data Protection and Data Retention

Another world leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also went on the offensive against our civil liberties and online freedoms when she expressed her doubts about the ECJ’s ruling on the EU data retention directive, saying that it needed to be reviewed. The ruling of the ECJ was a great victory for proponents of online freedom and data protection, as it deemed the EU directive invalid. As it is, the EU directive on data retention requires telecommunications data to be stored for at least 6 months, in order for police and security authorities to access data if so required. This of course greatly undermines principles of proportionality, storing all data regardless of suspicion of criminal behavior.

A study on ECJ’s ruling, obtained by Access Now, highlights principles of proportionality, marking that “all the criteria set out by the Court in its ruling on the need for safeguards, proportionality and the ‘existence of clear and precise rules’ must be included in these national laws. As a result all existing national acts on data retention should be examined on a case-by-case basis to check their compliance with those criteria.” In other words, to uphold any sort of data retention, major safeguards need to be in place as indiscriminate data retention violates principles of proportionality and privacy.

In Iceland IMMI is working towards abolishing a data retention directive from Icelandic law. Telecommunications companies are of course opposed to data retention as it costs them both time and money, whilst also undermining the trust between the companies and their clients.

In Iceland, we have already seen that data retention has jeopardized source protection in a case of governmental wrongdoing. Metadata was obtained by police showing phone records between a journalistic source and members of the press, thereby undermining source protection. This becomes all the more alarming when one takes into account that there is no official body of external-review under whose scope police operations can be scrutinized.

There are countless reasons for protecting our privacy. Both for individuals and for companies and governments. There is also good reason to clarify that transparency in business and governmental transparency that greatly affect our societies do not negate privacy, as transparency is there a tool to protect the weak from the strong, the people from the powerful. Privacy, however, is an individual right. In a TED-talk Glen Greenwald talks about why privacy matters. It is worth a watch.

We who want to be free

When we encounter world leaders arguing for repressive measures, the curbing of civil liberties, implementing secret courts, defending torture, attempting to quell investigations into torture, detaining people without charges, conducting mass surveillance and repeatedly attempting to restrain our freedoms online, we have to unite and we have to speak up. We cannot condone their hypocrisy, we cannot condone their fear-mongering nor their war-mongering. We have to look for other solutions. The perpetual war doctrine may generate profit, but it does not solve crisis.

More than anything, we have to fight for an actual freedom of information and an actual freedom of expression. Without those fundamental rights, our societies are neither free nor enlightened.

This is what IMMI and countless other organisations, foundations, activists and individuals work towards. We need your support. Raise awareness, write in the papers, blog, contact your democratic representative. Make a difference.

You can support IMMI here.


(Feature photo by Eleni Preza, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)