We must not live on our knees

Charlie Hebdo murders are no excuse for killing online freedom

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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.

9 Responses to “Charlie Hebdo murders are no excuse for killing online freedom”

    • David Meyer

      The problem is the fuzzy definition of what qualifies as actionable harrassment. A key law (the Malicious Communications Act 1988) speaks of communications “causing distress or anxiety”, and has been used to arrest people for simply making nasty or racist comments – bad things, certainly (and very relevant when considering the likes of Charlie Hebdo) but not something where the law should be involved.

  1. Jaco le Roux

    It would be great if there were politicians who are far more critical of the Intelligence Agencies who routinely fail. Every time an attack like this occurs the Intelligence aggencies simply justify their failures by demanding farther reaching intelligence tools. These tools have again proven that they are not very effective, whilst eroding freedom of speech.

    The fact that these intelligence failures occur should also highlight that there is no silver bullet that will predict all acts of random violence (Ideally they need the 3 ‘precogs’ in Minority Report to predict these crimes). Even if those acts of violence are well planned like 9/11 or 7/7, it’s very difficult to thwart them.

    It’s as if, after 9/11, terrorists and governments are now complicit in eroding civil liberties. For every terrorist attack the government can justify another crazy form of surveillance. And by increasing the reach of this surveillance, they’ve simply increased the size of the haystack and have continually failed to find the needles.

    The irony of this specific attack on Charlie Habdo (i.e. on freedom of speech) is that it’s highlighting how governments are being hipocritcal when they decry this terrorist act against freedom of speech, but at the same time they are attacking and undermining it by increasing surveillance. The NSA’s (and all governments that are complicit) far reaching intelligence gathering is having a far greater and longer term chilling effect on freedom of speech that any one terrorist attack.

    How can no-one make this obvious connection?

    • Nicholas Paredes

      This is the central problem of our day. The state is pitted against the people. The state is very much an actor more akin to corporations or religious organizations. Citizens think these states represent our interests, but do they? States represent interests. The Roman citizen sought to be a member of the empire/republic. This group brought power against other tribes. Socratic thought recognized the necessity of complete buy in to the state’s interests to the death if necessary. Most of history follows this pattern.

      We are at a point where states are still a necessity, yet most people do not agree with the state’s positions. Torture, economic policies, empire: do you agree or not? You are not really a citizen if you do not. What are we then? We are cast adrift waiting for the next social system to organize us.

  2. jeff spain

    The author was offended by satirical cartoons? Is the left so wimpy, so absurdly politicallly correct as to be constantly offended? Or is it they must appear to be offended to show their nutty liberal brethren how “enlightened” they are in all things? I am tired of all the faux outrage over words. I notice the left isn’t nearly so offended when a cop is murdered.

    • David Meyer

      I have a right to be offended, just as you have a right to be offended by me being offended. Isn’t freedom great? (I was pretty offended by the murder of the cop outside the Charlie Hebdo offices, by the way, but that should go without saying.)

    • Geoffrey Sperl

      CHARLIE HEBDO is a leftist publication. Before you start attempting to throw the common straw dog of American media right vs. left into this argument, please learn about what you’re discussing. Yes, the cartoons are offensive to many (they’ve disgusted me for years). That’s a simple fact – just accept it and move on to the discussion at hand, not the one you are attempting to devolve it into.