“The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the Internet, and Governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.” Edward Snowden
On July 24th, 2015 a new bill on intelligence entered into force in France. In the lead up to the passing of said bill there was an extensive debate. Some of the concerns raised were that the intrusive surveillance measures set forth in the text might tip the balance away from protecting fundamental rights; or that there were not enough safeguards in place, including for recourse to the judiciary, to offset the new powers of the intelligence agency, which would be accountable only to the Prime Minister. What would happen if the National Front (FN) were to garner a majority in the next elections? What guarantees would we have that that extreme right party would not excessively use these powers to curb our freedoms? Government representatives, including the current Minister for Home Affairs, Bernard Cazeneuve, replied to these concerns with a hefty does of cynicism and bad faith, saying that this should serve as further reminder to turn out to vote in the next elections, since the higher the abstention rate, the more likely it would be that the FN would do well.
As is often the case in France, the debate was extensive, but mainly a caricature, pitting the “reasonable people” (those who just want to legalise existing intelligence practices that have thus far fallen outside of any legal constraint) and those who are intransigent when it comes to freedom: “the irresponsible ones”; who, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are far too lax when it comes to the danger of the terrorist threat. On top of that, France is known for its political posturing, which is a part of the role of the player on the political chessboard a battle between the ruling French Socialist Party (PS) and the opposition centre-right party (UMP, or Les Républicains). In this instance, a majority in both parties agrees that the repressive arsenal should be strengthened.
This has all meant that we have neglected a very important philosophical, legal and political debate that is so crucial in the current circumstances of security hysteria. At the time of ubiquitous Internet and the ever-invasive presence of social network fora that have an increasing hold on our lives, how can we adjust our laws to uphold fundamental freedoms in a way that makes sense? How can we achieve this while guaranteeing our security, our right to privacy, our right to information, and our right to freedom of expression? And what about the fact that the threats of terrorism, pollution, and climate change do not stop at the borders of individual countries? It would be delusional to believe that effective control of this can be handled by a single small country like France. The best place to be contemplating something of this size is – at least – Europe-wide.
The latest work of the philosopher and sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, L’art de la révolte, sheds great light on the matter. He is well versed in Michel Foucault and his extensive work on surveillance, through which Lagasnerie prompts us to think about the current state of our freedoms and our democracies. He does this through three major figures in the debate: Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. The first two are well known in France. Bradley Manning, who has since become Chelsea, has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten. A former analyst for the U.S. military, she was the first to disclose classified military information to WikiLeaks. The documents did not positively depict U.S. action in Iraq. Specifically, the video of an air raid on July 12th, 2007 in Bagdad, a “mistake” of the U.S. military that resulted in 18 civilian deaths, including some children and two reporters from Reuters. Wikileaks’ revelations based on the information supplied by Chelsea Manning, swayed U.S. public opinion to the disastrous consequences of the war being waged in their name on Iraqi soil. For this act of truthfulness and bravery, Manning’s country gave her 35 years in prison! Today, Chelsea Manning is a transgender woman in a men’s penitentiary in Fort Leavenworth. She received much support from the likes of Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky and deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, not prison.
Edward Snowden and Julian Assange need no introduction. The former is an I.T. expert and former employee of the CIA. In 2013, he began publishing information about massive U.S. and British surveillance programs. Charges of spying were brought against him by the United States. He is currently in Russia. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, has been living in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. If he leaves he will be arrested. In July, Assange lodged a request for political asylum in France, the Elysée deemed the application inadmissible. Considering recent revelations made by Wikileaks that the Americans were tapping the phones of big economic and political players in France, including our last three presidents, he deserved better treatment from Paris. History will not look favourably on this refusal, nor will it smile upon the decision of the French president François Hollande, to refuse access to French airspace for the airplane of the President of Bolivia after it had been purported that Edward Snowden was on board. (July 2013).
Geoffroy de Lagasnerie explains in his book2, when it comes to Manning, Snowden and Assange, quite aside from their position as modern icons and heroes for millions of geeks around the world, through them we get a glimpse of the on-going fight surrounding State Secrets and mass surveillance. That will be one of the major challenges facing the survival of our democracies in the 21st century. The three individuals are considered necessary whistle-blowers, those who reveal crucial information on the transgressions of governments. But it is much more than that. Their “uprising” against State secrets and mass surveillance through the use of anonymity of WikiLeaks and the fleeing of Snowden and Assange, who preferred to give up their citizenship in favor of being “citizens of the world”, are part and parcel of new forms of radicalism in political dissent. They are perhaps the first people in history who are part of a global citizenry that is taking form in the digital era and that is standing up to the idea of the primacy of security in the post 911 era. They reject borders, citizenship, sovereignty, and prefer to defend absolute ideas like freedom and democracy. Is anonymity just a form of cowardice, as opponents of Wikileaks would claim? What if anonymity, as claimed by the group les Anonymous, were the guarantee that information could be openly shared, scandals brought to light, without having to put a tag on, politicize or put oneself in danger? And what if that anonymity were to be the best and only protection against the violence of governments and big multinationals, which guard their little unspeakable secrets jealously? What if it were a way to involve the most people possible in the fight to defend freedoms and democracy in the face of security transgressions, renewing an obsolete model of collective partisan contestation in a national political realm, in the digital age. All three individuals face hefty prison sentences, which are completely disproportionate to their acts. This is a testament to the fact that governments want, at any cost, to maintain their little monopoly on surveillance and State Secrets, which, in turn, reminds us of the importance of this democratic fight on a global scale. De Lagasnerie maintains that these new forms of contestation, as illustrated by their three glorious representatives, are THE political events of recent years. In fact, they surpass movements like Occupy, Indignados and the Arab Spring.
Snowden, Assange, and Manning
Where does ecology come in on all of this? Our dear and late friend Benoît Lechat reminded us throughout his body of work that democracy and ecology are not only compatible, they are inseparable from each other. Protecting the environment is easier and more effective when the largest number take part, by refusing to let an economic or political decision take precedence over the general interest. We have witnessed this when it comes to the debated, “big useless projects.” If it were up to the people to decide whether or not to build an airport in Notre Dame des Landes, or a dam in Sivens, with everything that we know, they would choose, with out a doubt, to do without this infrastructure. Developments in nuclear and technology have always been done under the heading of classified. The Greens have always rejected this.
Over the course of the last decades of struggle, the Greens have been fighting for more democracy and transparency, locally, regionally and nationally, in Europe. The movement has taken a stand on gender equality in the face of a cozy male dominated political world. Now, in response to the security temptations of certain governments, globally, the Greens feels it an obligation to support the actions of Assange, Manning, Snowden and all of the anonymous people who have, in broad daylight or from behind their computer, refused to let themselves be spied on and punished. They did this at risk of having to leave for revealing what can, “never be said.”
That is why, during the debate on the Intelligence bill, the majority of Greens were against, and rightly so, this French avatar of mass surveillance. It is the same thing that motivates them to fight the exchange of Passenger Name Records or PNC. They feel that it would, on the pretext of fighting terrorism, curb the right to privacy. The Greens also support more transparency in the documents of the institutions of the European Union, specifically when it comes to the controversial TTIP negotiations (on a side note, Wikileaks have started a fundraising campaign to raise 100,000 euros for anyone who would be willing to disclose the entire TTIP text). That is why Julian Assange was one of the keynote speakers at the 2015 EELV Summer Campus EELV. There, he debated the urgent need to protect whistle-blowers, alongside Eva Joly and Edwy Plenel4.
Meanwhile, France under François Hollande will prove to have been derisory when it comes to the fight to uphold freedom of expression, the right to information and the protection of whistle-blowers for having learned the opposite lesson from the gruesome January attacks than the one which History would teach us. This is one area, and of course areas of disagreement are far from lacking, where the Greens have every reason to completely distance themselves from the current ruling party.
As per usual, France will debate all of this ten years after the rest of the world, all the while continuing to claim, poor and blind, that it is the, “home of human rights.” In the meantime, Snowden, Assange and the others will continue to crouch in their no man’s land, harassed like terrorists for having done little more than clarified things for us too quickly.5.
This article was published on Mediapart.
2 Some current advisors to the French president purportedly, we hope, the intelligence to read to better understand President Hollande’s failures in terms of freedom of expression and the right to privacy (without talking about the rest).
3 By video, the French police do not make the trip for nothing.
4 All of this without, however, losing sight of the negative impact of the generalization of culture of the digital age, as our way of life that is increasingly detached from nature.
5 In order to know more about Snowden’s case, read the very well documente book by Antoine Lefébure : L’affaire Snowden, comment les Etats-Unis espionnent le monde, éd. La Découverte, Paris, 2014.