A Digital Bill of Rights

Every global state, or clunky imperium, deserves its global counterpart, a balancing lever to ensure that it doesn’t fall into depravity. The state of global surveillance, so extensive it not so much subverts as pushes pass bills of rights and entitlements to privacy, demands some counter measure. Lawyers are dusting off the files anticipating litigation, but importantly, the humdrum citizen is getting ready to propose an alternative.

The options in winding back Surveillance Inc. have been scarce. The onus to change the status quo has been placed, somewhat unreliably, on state authorities fired by national indignation. The United States and Britain are found out with their intelligence hands in the till; recriminations follow only to then dissipate into oblivion.

We know that some of this anger is genuine. But political figures are ever ready at capitalising from the bully pulpit in the hope of getting constituents on side. Indonesia’s concerns about Australia-US efforts, or German angst against Washington, are notable examples. Actual progress on change tends to be slow, if at all.

Some tech companies have also fumed at the state of government surveillance, though much of this must be taken with a grain of salt. Earlier this week, Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and AOL published an open letter to the representatives on the Hill. “The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information.”

The document goes on to outline various key provisions: the codification of principles in terms of compelling service providers to disclose information; the creation of a clear framework under which intelligence agencies can collect information; transparency about “government demands”; the respect about the free flow of information and the creation of a consistent mutual legal assistance treaty.

We know what executives behind technology companies generally feel about their consumers and privacy. Back in 1999, then chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy came up with the standard line that must have sounded like music to those in Surveillance Inc. Consumer privacy, he argued, was merely a “red herring”. “You have zero privacy anyway” (Wired, Jan 26, 1999).

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, always keen to play the market, has been one of the greatest single influences in eroding the private domain of users. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time” (Switched, Jan 11, 2010). Now, Zuckerberg has changed the tune for the moment, fearing that such “sharing” may well have to be qualified.

Annexed to the current petition urging reform of the surveillance state, Zuckerberg is found claiming that, “Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information. The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right.”

A slew of novelists and writers, among them Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, and Don DeLillo, have come out in force to append their own signatures to a petition. The 500 and more petitioners argue that, “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.” The authors further demand the “right” that all democratic citizens be entitled to determine “to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information 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.”

Yes, these are merely signatures, and again, they constitute expressions of indignation. But they matter. This may be the straw that broke the back of the digital monster that has been brought forth. After all, the most striking development in that direction has been the sublimation of police state technology across all political systems – we are all the subject of surveillance now, the guinea pigs of laboratory fiends who reside in the palaces of the NSA and GCHQ. The normalisation of Stasiland is the great feature of the twenty first century – no political system has been spared that.

It should be axiomatic that, just as there is a global transfer of materials, goods and services, there should be some uniform context to which rights to information can be managed. Each human’s existence is an imprint, a trace of existence that requires protection. As long as something can be possessed, it can be traded, sold and parted. It is for that very reason that care must be taken. Placing a ring around Surveillance Inc. will be a modest start.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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