Last Saturday the Guardian and the Don’t Spy on Us Campaign (a UK based coalition of privacy, free expression and digital rights organizations) hosted the ‘Don’t Spy On Us: Day of Action’ event at Shoreditch Town Hall in the historic East End of London. The event was held in honor of the one year anniversary of the Guardian (in partnership with The New York Times and ProPublica) publishing the first Edward Snowden revelations.
The event was kick-started by a video address by actor, TV host, and celebrated Twitter technology commentator Stephen Fry, who told an audience of around 500 privacy activists that,
‘The idea of having your letters read by somebody, your telegrams, your faxes, your postcards intercepted, was always considered one of the meanest, most beastly things a human being could do, and for a government to do, without good cause. Using the fear of terrorism that we all have, the fear of the unknown that we all share, the fear of enemies that hate us, is a duplicitous and deeply wrong means of excusing something as base as spying on the citizens of your own country.
It’s enough that corporations know so much about us and our spending habits, our eating habits, our sexual preferences, everything else. But that a government, something that we elect, something that should be looking out for our best interests, should presume without asking to take information that we swap, we hope privately, between ourselves is frankly disgraceful.’
Attending the event was Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, who argued that Britain needed a written constitution which enshrined the rights of free speech, so that whisteblowers acting for the public good could come forward without fear,
‘One of the big differences between the US and the UK is the first amendment, so the idea of smashing computers in the basement of the New York Times is basically inconceivable. One of the important things about the US is that something like the first amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights is very difficult to change – whereas here, it’s not so easy to construct something that’s difficult to change. Parliament can ultimately change anything with a majority vote and that’s that.’
White was referring to the disgraceful incident last year when the Guardian was forced to destroy hard drives and memory cards under the supervision of intelligence agents (despite the fact that everyone knew the data existed elsewhere, making the entire episode a rather bizarre pantomime).
Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief who was ordered to destroy the hard-drives by the government under threat of legal action, agreed,
‘We need to embody some of those rights here, we don’t have rights in Britain. We tend to wait until things go wrong, so there is no really established right to privacy because there is no constitutional protection of free speech.’
He added that the destroying the hard drives probably had consequences opposite to what was intended in the government,
‘By forcing the reporting out of the UK to the US, the British government lost any handle on this story at all. So, I hope the British government will think about that in the future.’
The Don’t Spy on Us Campaign wants a public inquiry (held before the next general election) into the extent to which the law has failed to protect the privacy of UK citizens, and calls for new laws that place oversight of when spying is justified in the hands of judges, not the home secretary.
‘Freedom from surveillance is essential to freedom itself. The freedom to think, to speak and to have discourse without fear of reprisal or even judgment is at the core of democracy itself,’ explained campaign supporter Cory Doctorow.