500 of the world’s leading authors have signed a statement calling for changes to state surveillance and the drafting of a new international charter. They join the leading eight Internet giants, who yesterday put forward their own letter to President Obama.
Writers from over 81 countries have put their signatures to the document. They all believe that citizens are all living under unjustified surveillance now and that is a threat to personal freedom. As with the internet consortium, they have had their fears justified with the revelations from Edward Snowden.
The famous names make an impressive list, there are five Nobel prize winners on it. They include Margaret Atwood, Gunter Grass, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and Lionel Shriver. They call on the United Nations to create a bill of digital rights to be applied internationally and to “enshrine the protection of civil rights in the internet age.” Those pictured above are all Miles Franklin Award winners from Australia; Frank Moorhouse, Anna Funder and David Malouf. The entire group has won every major literary prize that exists. Pulitzer prize winners Richard Ford and Jane Smiley are signatories as are Man Booker prize winners, such as Julian Barnes.
“Spy agencies are undermining demoncracy” say the authors, who between them have a phenomenal global renown. They represent the global community, with other representatives from the antipodes (JM Coetzee, CK Stead, Thomas Keneally) to Russia (Mikhail Shishkin) and all countries in between. As a group, they are called Writers Against Mass Surveillance.
With their particular reliance on the importance and power of the private imagination, the writerly elite say that all humans have the right to “remain unobserved and unmolested” in their own thoughts, their private communications and their own environment. They abhor the way that this cornerstone of human rights has been “rendered null and void” though the state sanctioned technological abuse of mass surveillance.
“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”
Trust the gifted wordsmiths to put it so succinctly.
The statement will be launched today in 27 countries and those who wish to support it can do so by also signing at the website change.org.
Ian McEwan, in an interview about the petition, said, “The state, by its nature, always prefers security to liberty.” For those who have been thinking, “what would George Orwell have made of all this had he been alive today?” Amis offered an opinion. He thinks that the inventor of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 would have been “amazed” by the means of mass surveillance available to today’s agencies.
Orwell is far from the only brilliant author to have tried to imagine a dystopian future where mass surveillance was the norm. Often they have seemed to strangely predict what has come to pass. HG Wells foresaw a “world brain” where all knowledge was contained. Ray Bradbury wrote of complete totalitarian censorship. Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale created a world where female reproduction was controlled by the state. However, what is happening now is not fiction. It is all too real.
“Surveillance is theft” say the world’s leading writers. Our data is our own personal property and it belongs to us. When it is used for predictive purposes, to second guess our behaviours, what we may buy or be interested in, it deprives us of our own free will. This is a critical element in democracy.
Anyone who has ever been irritated by the targeted stream of ads which filter through to Gmail accounts of Facebook walls will be in full sympathy with this observation.
Despite this, people appear to have been relatively unperturbed by the disclosure that their private phone calls and emails can be easily got at and that their encryption codes are no barrier. The metadata that has already been amassed may have to go on to have wider ramifications before the public, like the internet companies and the writers, become truly incensed. One aspect that has come to light is lawyer/client confidence, and another long-established right of secrecy is the relationship between a journalist and a source. Investigative journalism depends on secure anonymity.
The Snowden revelations, published by The Guardian in the UK, revealed a scale of surveillance in the US and the UK that was far more wide-reaching than anyone could hitherto have guessed. Both NSA and the GCHQ had access to private citizens phone calls, emails and search engine patterns, with absolutely no controls over them. They were allowed not only to collect all this data but to store it.
Bulgarian writer, Ilija Trojanow, has spoken about what it is live in a world where you know you are being bugged. “It is remarkable that once the camera or the microphone is directed towards you, you can no longer be innocent.” As he read in the files of the secret services what his parents and other relatives had been talking about he realised, ” Any statement by them was construed and misconstrued as proof of their subversive tendencies.”
It seems to have taken a little time for indignation to build, but it is now getting up a head of steam. The biggest tech companies led the way yesterday with their Reform Government Surveillance letter, (cf article: Internet Giants Line up for Reform). Now 500 of the most esteemed authors on the planet are clamoring for serious change.
By Kate Henderson