There’s been a predictable split in the reactions to Wednesday’s slaughter of the staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, along with others including police who were trying to protect them. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in France and across Europe in defiance against those behind this attack on free speech…
… while others have taken a decidedly different tack, using the outrage as a justification for the rolling-back of online civil liberties. This approach was taken by Dan Hodges in the Telegraph, and by the Sun in an editorial arguing that “intelligence is our best defense… yet liberals still fret over the perceived assault on civil liberties of spooks analyzing emails.”
Here’s what Hodges (a well-known admirer of Tony Blair, the British prime minister who was no friend of civil liberties) wrote:
We hear a lot about freedom, and threats to our freedom. We heard about it, for example, when the government asked the Guardian to stop publishing the Snowden files because of the risk to national security. We heard about it last year, when David Cameron announced he was bringing back plans to allow the security agencies to monitor, and retain data on, our electronic communications – the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’. We heard about it in the wake of the Lee Rigby killing, where we [were] told the state would use the murder as an excuse for a further erosion of our liberties.
But those are not real assaults on our freedom. Switch on your TV. You will see and hear what an assault on freedom really looks like…
If one way of stopping obscenities like today is providing the security services a bit more access to our e-mails, we must give it to them. If it means internet providers handing over their records, the records must be handed over. If it means newspapers showing restraint the next time an Edward Snowden knocks on their door, then restraint will have to be shown. Because look who came knocking at the door today.
Hodges must be given credit for at least calling himself a “coward” in that piece, saving time for the rest of us.
I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of Charlie Hebdo’s content, much of which I personally found grossly offensive. That, after all, is the publication’s aim – to make points offensively (to a multitude of targets, it should be noted) and to meet calls for restraint with more proud offense. Freedom of expression is an essential civil liberty, not only in France, but across much of the democratic world. It was set out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which emerged from the French Revolution in 1789, and it is today enshrined on an international level in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) .
The ICCPR’s signatories, including France, the U.K. and most of the world, have also pledged to ensure that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Yes, this is a right that needs to be balanced against others, most notably the right to security, but arguably no calculation of that balance can justifiably permit mass surveillance.
To quote last year’s report on online mass surveillance by Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism:
International human rights law require States to provide an articulable and evidence-based justification for any interference with the right to privacy, whether on an individual or mass scale. It is a central axiom of proportionality that the greater the interference with protected human rights, the more compelling the justification must be if it is to meet the requirements of the Covenant. The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether. By permitting bulk access to all digital communications traffic, this technology eradicates the possibility of any individualized proportionality analysis.
Apart from the fact that mass surveillance hasn’t been shown to work – France’s extensive surveillance regime, expanded just weeks ago, clearly failed in this case – it is no way to protect freedom of expression. It is a tool for chilling free speech, of dissuading people from speaking their minds, and the same British government that wants to introduce the “snooper’s charter” is also working to stop its citizens from seeing extremist material online, by getting ISPs to filter out such content. It is cracking down on free expression on social media, leading the police there to tweet things like this:
It forced the Guardian‘s editors to destroy computers holding copies of the Snowden cache with angle grinders, for whatever that was worth. And the Sun, so keen on Blair’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) this week, recently made an official complaint about the police using the mass surveillance law to spy on its journalists and their sources in a case that was embarrassing the government.
After a cartoon featuring Mohammed led to the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2011, editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier famously said: “It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
On Wednesday, Charb died for liberty. To suggest that the correct response is the curtailment of liberty — to effectively argue that terrorism should be met with fearful capitulation — is more offensive than anything he ever published.