Groups call for EU action against mass surveillance

Recent revelations of American and British mass surveillance of digital communications have triggered an intense mobilization of European free speech and civil liberties organizations, which have launched an online petition calling on leaders of the European Union to halt the practice. The #dontspyonme campaign was presented by Index on Censorship, an independent, British, free speech nonprofit, at an event in London on July 25. It calls on EU heads of government “to clearly and unambiguously state their opposition to all systems of mass surveillance” including that conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and similar European agencies.

“The use of digital technology to monitor our emails, phones, and the websites we visit is enormously chilling in its impact,” said Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship. Campaigners are pressing leaders of the 28-member club to include the issue on the agenda for the next big EU summit, to be held in October. “If we are constantly watched, how can we exercise our right to free speech? It is not just an invasion of privacy but also a violation of our right to free speech,” she said. “Online, these two fundamental rights go together even more.”

The campaign is supported by British and European advocacy groups such as Article 19, Liberty, the Portuguese, Canadian and British chapters of PEN as well as PEN International, the European Federation of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. The petition echoes the “Stop Watching Us” campaign in the U.S., which has collected more than 500,000 signatures demanding that Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying program.

In the U.K., a bill to give police and security services greater ability to monitor Internet use–labeled the “snooper’s charter” by its critics–drew intense opposition and was temporarily shelved by the British government earlier this year. Since then, revelations of American mass digital surveillance have raised accusations of increased spying on British citizens through the back door. “After fighting the snooper’s charter, now they are bypassing national laws,” said Bella Sankey, policy director at Liberty, a civil liberties group supporting the EU campaign. “We argue you are entitled to as much freedom on the Internet as walking on the street,” she said.

The European Parliament launched its own inquiry into U.S. spying activity on July 4 with the support of the major political parties. “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations,” said Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament. Not all European politicians agree. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said “Thank God the Americans are protecting us” in a July 27 interview with Schweiz am Sonntag. “It is well known the Americans are working to obtain information in order to prevent terrorist attacks,” he told the Swiss Sunday newspaper. A group of members of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament will investigate the surveillance allegations and issue a report before the end of the year.