A survey conducted by the PEN American Center last month detailed the chilling effect that the National Security Agency’s actions have had on the intellectual freedom, creativity and social discourse of American writers. Now, a month after 85 percent of the Nation’s literary community expressed worries in the report (titled “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor”), a consortium of at least 500 leading authors around the world is condemning the agency’s actions and calling for new global privacy protections for the digital age.
The accomplished group of “writers against mass survelliance” includes Nobel laureates such as Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee, Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass and Tomas Tranströmer, as well such other modern literary notables as Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, Yann Martel, Dave Eggers, Colum McCann, Sapphire, Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo.
In a petition the writers request that the United Nations take steps to create an international bill of digital rights to stem the tide of Internet and communication surveillance of governments worldwide.
“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy,” the petition states.
The writers’ appeal points out that respect for the individual goes beyond respecting an individual’s physical being in a way that should embarrass any U.S. supporter of government spying aware of the already existent — and thoroughly maltreated — constraints of the 4th Amendment in the United States.
“The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body,” the writers note in the petition. “In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.”
The writers likely face an uphill battle in their search for U.N.-backed privacy guarantees, as the U.S. and its key intelligence partners already successfully lobbied for softer language in a non-binding U.N. resolution last month which sought to lessen privacy concerns.
Nonetheless, the petition urges the international community to take robust actions to quell digital surveillance for the following reasons:
* Surveillance violates the private sphere and compromises freedom of thought and opinion.
* Mass surveillance treats every citizen as a potential suspect. It overturns one of our historical triumphs, the presumption of innocence.
* Surveillance makes the individual transparent, while the state and the corporation operate in secret. As we have seen, this power is being systemically abused.
* Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property: it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else: the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.
In order to prevent the dystopian future — or perhaps turn back the clock on the dystopian present — that exists when global surveillance is embraced by the leadership of the global community, when it should nary be tolerated, the writers demand:
…THE RIGHT for all people to determine, as democratic citizens, to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored.
The petition goes on to suggest that resistance from all levels, from lone citizen to global leadership, is required to normalize privacy and freedom of thought in an era when individual world governments see spying as a right and responsibility of the ruling elite.
To that end, the petition issues the following call to action:
WE CALL ON ALL STATES AND CORPORATIONS to respect these rights.
WE CALL ON ALL CITIZENS to stand up and defend these rights.
WE CALL ON THE UNITED NATIONS to acknowledge the central importance of protecting civil rights in the digital age, and to create an International Bill of Digital Rights.
WE CALL ON GOVERNMENTS to sign and adhere to such a convention.
The petition was launched simultaneously in 27 countries on Tuesday; it is now open for individual members of the public to become signatories.