Writers Call for International Bill of Digital Rights

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

pen america 2013

The PEN-led effort is being called Writers Against Mass Surveillance.

Last month, we published a story on a report by PEN America on the chilling effect that NSA surveillance is having on American writers, questioning what authors are doing to fight back. Now, The Guardian reports that more than 500 of the world’s leading authors (including five Nobel prize winners) have condemned the scale of governmental surveillance as reported by Edward Snowden and call for a new international charter to end the abuse.

The signatories come from 81 different countries and include Margaret Atwood, Hanif Kureishi, Don DeLillo, Orhan Pamuk, JM Coetzee, Ariel Dorfman, Richard Ford, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Grossman, and Mikhail Shishkin.

The writers call for a digital rights convention that nations will sign off on and enforce, demanding the right “for all people to determine to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored, and processed. Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property, it belongs to us. When it used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else – the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.”

McEwan told The Guardian, “When Leviathan can, it will. The state, by its nature, always prefers security to liberty. Lately, technology has offered it means it can’t resist, means of mass surveillance that Orwell would have been amazed by. The process is inexorable — unless its resisted. Obviously, we need protection from terrorism, but not at any cost.”

Jo Glanville, from English PEN which, along with its fellow organizations around the world has supported the Writers Against Mass Surveillance campaign added, “International moral pressure is what’s needed to ensure politicians address the mass invasion of our privacy by the intelligence agencies in the UK and US. The signatories to the appeal are a measure of the level of ou8trage and concern.”

The declaration reads as follows:

A stand for democracy in a digital age

In recent months, the extent of mass surveillance has become common knowledge. With a few clicks of the mouse the state can access your mobile device, your email, your social networking and internet searches. It can follow your political leanings and activities and, in partnership with internet corporations, it collects and stores your data, and thus can predict your consumption and behaviour.
The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body. In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.

This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes.

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.

  • 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.

WE 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.
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.

To see the complete list of signatories, click here.
To sign on yourself, click here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.