National security should not be used by governments to justify mass surveillance

Following the Foreign Secretary’s speech to the House of Commons on the GCHQ links to the Prism scandal, we the undersigned condemn the collection and surveillance of British citizens’ online communications and activities through the US Prism programme. We equally condemn the worldwide reach of this monitoring.

National security should not be used by governments to justify mass surveillance, either domestically or abroad. Such programmes directly undermine the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression, chilling free speech and giving rise to self-censorship. This is not about the targeted surveillance of criminals or security risks but surveillance of private citizens on a massive scale – through the US government security services, which British citizens cannot hold democratically to account.

William Hague’s claims on Sunday that innocent citizens have ‘nothing to fear’ are the sort of justification of population-wide monitoring that we might expect from China, not the UK. Mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and undermines our fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

We call upon William Hague and David Cameron to protect the privacy and free speech rights of British citizens and to help end the mass online surveillance of individuals around the world. We also call on EU Presidents Barroso and van Rompuy to stand against mass surveillance and to uphold the EU’s Cybersecurity Strategy, which states “increased global connectivity should not be accompanied by censorship or mass surveillance”.

Index on Censorship
English PEN
Privacy International
Open Rights Group
Article 19

For more information, please contact Pam Cowburn: [email protected], 07749785932

Related: Index condemns mass surveillance | UN report slams government surveillance

Index Events
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The internet: free open space, wild wild west, or totalitarian state? However you view the web, in today’s world it is bringing both opportunities and threats for free expression — and ample opportunity for government surveillance

UAE: Joint open letter to William Hague calling for release of activists

Index joins a group of international rights groups in calling on UK Foreign Minister William Hague and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to push for the prisoners’ release

Since March, Emirati authorities have arrested over 50 activists and human rights defenders in a widespread crackdown on dissent.

Dear Foreign Secretary,

We are writing to draw your attention to some disturbing human rights developments in the United Arab Emirates, where the authorities have launched a campaign of arrest, arbitrary detention and deportation to repress and intimidate peaceful political activists.

Since late March, the authorities there have arrested at least 50 Emirati civil society activists and human rights defenders. In recent weeks there has been a marked escalation in the crackdown on those advocating political reform in the UAE, with two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed al-Mansoori, amongst those detained in a spate of arrests and detentions.

Although none of those arrested have been formally charged with any offence, there are strong indications that the detentions are being linked to issues of national security. A July 15 statement by the UAE’s official news agency said Attorney General Salem Sa’eed Kubaish had ordered the arrest and investigation of “a group of people for establishing and managing an organisation with the aim of committing crimes that harm state security”. The statement also accused this group of having connections with “foreign organisations and outside agendas” and promised to “expose the dimensions of the conspiracy”.

Al-Roken is a prominent human rights lawyer in the Emirates, and has provided legal assistance to al-Islah members detained without charge since March, including a group that authorities stripped of their citizenship. In 2011 he served as co-defence counsel for two of the five activists known as the “UAE 5 ,” who were imprisoned for seven months and tried in 2011 after allegedly posting statements on an internet forum critical of UAE government policy and leaders.

Al-Mansoori is the deputy chairman of al-Islah and a former president of the Jurists’ Association. The UAE authorities dismissed him from his position as a legal advisor to the government of Ras Al Khaimah in January 2010 after he gave a television interview in which he criticised restrictions on freedom of speech in the country. They have barred him from travelling since October 2007 and have refused to renew his passport since March 2008.

On 24 July the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance sentenced a former judge and University of Sharjah law professor, Dr Ahmed Yousef al-Zaabi, to 12 months’ imprisonment for fraud and assuming another person’s identity. Al-Zaabi’s conviction was based on the fact that his passport still registered his profession as “judge” after his public support for political reform in the UAE had resulted in him being forced into retirement. The authorities’ targeting of lawyers has discouraged members of the Emirati legal profession from offering their services, thereby denying the detained men legal assistance.

On 16 June, the UAE deported Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, an advocate for the rights of stateless residents known as Bidun. He had been held in detention without charge or explanation since 22 May and was informed that he would be indefinitely detained if he did not agree to leave the UAE. Abd al-Khaleq is one of the UAE 5. UAE authorities charged the UAE 5 in early June 2011 under articles 176 and 8 of the UAE Penal Code, which criminalise “public insults” of the country’s top officials. They were detained throughout a seven-month pre-trial and trial process. The Federal Supreme Court convicted them on 27 November and sentenced them to between two and three years in prison. Shortly afterward, Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE president, commuted the sentences and they were released. However, the events of recent days have again revealed the lengths to which the UAE authorities are prepared to go to curb dissent.

In January of this year, you wrote that freedom was “still flowering” in the Arab Spring and described how protection against arbitrary punishment and freedom of expression were taking hold in the region. This is manifestly not the case in the UAE, where freedom of speech is being aggressively repressed by intimidation, arbitrary detention and deportation.

We urge you and the UK government to raise these issues at the highest levels with the UAE authorities, and to criticise publicly the repression of free speech and free association, the harassment of members of the legal profession, and to call for the immediate release of the detained activists.

Yours sincerely,

Rachid Mesli, Director, Legal Department, Alkarama Foundation

Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line

Khalid Ibrahim, Acting Director, Gulf Centre for Human Rights

David Mepham, Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship

Read more about the UAE 5 here

Foreign Secretary responds to open letter on freedom of expression

In response to an open letter from Index and a number of media freedom groups, Foreign Secretary William Hague outlines the Coalition Government’s policy on freedom of expression and the internet.

Thank you for your letter of 1 November about the Coalition Government’s policy on freedom of expression.

This Government rejects censorship and surveillance that undermines people’s rights to express themselves, organise or communicate freely. We are proud to stand up for freedom of expression and privacy. Britain will always be on the side of those aspiring to greater political and economic freedom anywhere in the world, whether this is on or off the internet.

In the UK, we are striving for a model for internet governance where governments, industry and users of the Internet work together. Our obligations under the Human Rights Act, underpinned by our international treaty obligations, are central. As you know, these protect freedom of expression, association and assembly from undue interference from the government or other public bodies.  International human rights conventions rightly set very high thresholds for any action by the state to suppress or control the free flow of information. Any action we take will be in accordance with these obligations.

I would like to address some specific issues you raise.

We believe that parents should be provided with wide tools to enable them to voluntarily block harmful and inappropriate content. Active choice is the preferred approach, with parents given a choice as to whether or not to activate parental controls when switching on a new internet enabled device or connecting to a new internet connection for the first time. It is important to distinguish between government encouraging people to make more use of existing protections as a matter of choice, and the government deciding what people can and cannot do online. Our plans do not prevent access to legal material, but seek to make it much clearer that protections exist, and to encourage their use. The position of Claire Perry regarding the default filtering of adult content is not the position of this government.

You referred to the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament earlier this year in the wake of recent disturbances in the UK.  Let me be clear. The Prime Minister did not suggest that social networks should be closed down. The government has not and is not seeking any new powers in this area. We recognise the enormous benefits that social networking brings, not least in the valuable part it played in helping citizens avoid trouble spots and in galvanizing community clean up efforts. Social networking itself was not the root cause of the disturbances, but, as our courts have recognised, did offer an enhanced means of communication to some individuals’ intent on inciting or facilitating widespread criminal behaviour.  In light of this our law enforcement agencies, the network providers and social media organisations are looking at ways they can enhance co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour, in accordance with, and in order to uphold UK law.

Finally you raised concerns about powers of surveillance and access to personal information online. It is of course the responsibility of government to maintain capabilities to investigate crimes and to protect individuals where they are threatened by criminals, terrorism or foreign powers.  The use of covert surveillance by the authorised government agencies, for example the acquisition of communications data and the interception of communications, is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).  RIPA’s strict safeguards, including independent oversight, ensure that such surveillance is, and will continue to be, fully consistent with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

As I outlined at the London Conference on Cyberspace (LCC), the UK’s approach to the future of cyberspace has at its heart a simple proposition: behaviour that is unacceptable in the offline world is also unacceptable online. This emphatically includes the curtailing of human rights. Human rights are universal, and apply with equal force online as they do offline. The UK will continue to take a lead role in ensuing these principles are upheld.

UK: Letter to foreign secretary on cyberspace

As the London Conference on Cyberspace begins, Index on Censorship has joined leading media freedom groups and activists in calling on Foreign Secretary William Hague to reject censorship and surveillance techniques that undermine free expression.

Dear Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs,

World leaders will today converge on London for the London Conference on Cyberspace.

The conference will take place in the shadow of revolutions that have laid bare the relationship between technology, citizens’ freedom and political power. This has created a unique opportunity for the UK government to show leadership in promoting the rights of citizens online.

However, the government’s record on freedom of expression and privacy is less than ideal. Britain’s desire to promote these ideals internationally are being hampered by domestic policy.

The government is currently considering greater controls over what legal material people are allowed to access on the Internet. This is clear from recent public support by the Prime Minister, and through Claire Perry MP’s ongoing inquiry, for plans to filter adult and other legal material on UK Internet connections by default. The new PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy contains similar proposals for the filtering of material that is legal but deemed undesirable. Earlier this year the Prime Minister suggested there should be more powers to block access to social media, a policy that drew praise from China and which the government swiftly backed away from. There are also plans for more pervasive powers to surveil and access people’s personal information online.

The government now has an historic opportunity to support technologies that promote rather than undermine people’s political and social empowerment.

We call for the UK government to seize this opportunity to reject censorship and surveillance that undermines people’s rights to express themselves, organise or communicate freely. That is the only way to both enshrine the rights of citizens in the UK and to support these principles internationally.

This government should be proud to stand up for freedom of expression and privacy off- and online. This conference should herald a new stage in which these principles are upheld in UK policy.

Yours sincerely,

Brett Soloman, Executive Director, Access

Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director, Article 19

Cory Doctorow, Fellow, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN

Evgeny Morozov, author, ‘The Net Delusion’

Andrew Puddephatt, Director, Global Partners

Heather Brooke, author, ‘The Revolution will be Digitised’

Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship

Tony Curzon Price, Editor-in-Chief, openDemocracy

Simon Davies, Director, Privacy International

Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group