The bad news with the good: “Alternative Nobel” vs lack of discussion, investigation, or reform
So, the good news, as everyone will have heard by now, is that Edward Snowden and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger have been jointly awarded the 2014 Right Livelihood honorary award. Snowden is also, apparently, emerging “as a cult hero in Germany”.
As to the former, show of hands who believes that this also means Snowden will not be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, Sweden’s foreign minister has already waded in to stop Snowden from travelling to Sweden to accept the honour of the Right Livelihood Award.
As to the latter, according to his German lawyer, Wolfgang Kaleck, Snowden isn’t exactly happy with being “hero-worshipped.” Unsurprisingly, he views it as a “distraction” from the substance of his revelations which, as Snowden has insisted from day one, should be the actual subject of interest.
Of course, he is right. Revelations like recent ones about New Zealand, where the GCSB apparently
should be the real story. After all, even NZ premier John Key admitted that Snowden ‘may well be right’ about the NSA spying on New Zealand, even though he denies that the GCSB was feeding Kiwi data into the NSA’s xKeyscore. Be that as it may, Key doesn’t seem to be particularly worked up about the NSA potentially spying on millions of innocent New Zealanders either. Just saying.
Meanwhile in Germany, the foreign intelligence chief has made similar denials about xKeyscore after it was revealed earlier this month that the NSA has hacked German telecommunications provider Deutsche Telekom, as well as satellite providers like Stellar. I commented last week on the implications of this.
Needless to say that Snowden is right that revelations like these should absolutely be the primary topic of discussion. However, this is also where the bad news starts because there still seems to be far too little discussion going on. Granted, people “in the know” flood to events like Moments of Truth and HOPE and that’s great.
Still, despite Snowden and Rusbridger being awarded the “alternative Nobel”, one cannot help but wonder how effective the Snowden revelations really are with the more general public. Without seeking to diminish the importance of what Snowden has revealed, I have commented on multiple occasions on how muted the debate is in some countries. Not to mention that governments from Germany to the UK and the US have shown little or no interest in serious investigation or reform.
Or, take New Zealand. By now we know that Kim Dotcom’s election campaign failed pretty abysmally and that neither his Moment of Truth event, nor The Intercept’s revelations about mass spying in New Zealand stopped Prime Minister John Key from securing a landslide victory. It may be taking things a little too far to conclude that this means that “the people of New Zealand think that [mass surveillance is] appropriate” or that they “want to sacrifice a certain measure of their liberty …” but it is worrying just the same. Just like revelations of mass surveillance and systematic infringements of civil rights have done little to affect the German and European elections, so they seem to have had little effect on the New Zealand election. To an extent, that isn’t surprising: given the muted reaction Snowden’s revelations have received from certain general publics in certain Western democracies, they could hardly be expected to topple governments (whether or not, in an ideal world, Snowden’s revelations should topple governments is another matter).
Still, this is a problem.
Curbing parliamentary oversight: Germany
For one thing, what Snowden said at the Moment of Truth event has lost nothing of its importance: he stressed once again the significance of metadata –
as an analyst I would prefer to be looking at metadata… because it’s quicker and easier and it doesn’t lie
– and the need for informed public debate about mass surveillance.
Consent,” Snowden said. “Has to be informed to be meaningful.”
Obviously, informed, meaningful consent is hardly possible when mass surveillance is kept secret or when governments go to great lengths to ensure that crucial information is kept firmly under wraps.
In this context, something that is happening in Germany at the moment is interesting. I have commented on various occasions on the German parliament’s NSA investigative committee and how it is doing very little to properly examine the extent of NSA spying in Germany or the involvement of Germany’s own foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendiesnt (BND). I have also repeatedly criticised the German government’s apparent unwillingness to call Edward Snowden as a witness in the inquiry, let alone to grant him asylum. Basically, the German government, much like the Swedish government or, in fact, any government apart from perhaps the Swiss, is fighting tooth and nail to keep Snowden out of the country.
In Germany, though, the government also seems to be obstructing the investigation. Members of the German NSA committee have previously complained about files and other materials being blackened so much that they are of little or no value. As German newspaper DIE ZEIT reports this week, the German government seems prepared to go even further.
Germany’s data protection commissioner seems is an obvious witness to the NSA inquiry. Yet the German government is currently working on a new law that would allow the commissioner to testify only with previous consent by the government in investigations pertaining to the government – of which an inquiry into the BND would be very much an example. Without government consent, the commissioner would not be allowed to tell anyone, not even the German parliament, if he found anything wrong with the way an agency like the BND went about its business. What a law like this effectively does, of course, is to curtail, if not remove, parliamentary oversight. This after it has been criticised time and again that existing oversight mechanisms aren’t effective in curbing indiscriminate spying in most countries anyway. It is telling that the German government apparently is working to curb parliamentary oversight rather than strengthen it. It is also telling that the data protection commissioner’s files, according to the NSA investigative committee, are amongst the most informative the committee has seen so far – more informative, in fact, than those provided by the German government. Exactly why the German government should be working to implement this law, while also refusing the NSA investigative committee its most important witness (Snowden) should give us much food for thought.
The Opposition vs The Government: taking Merkel to court
The one item of good news is that opposition MPs on the German NSA committee are unwilling to put up with any more government shenanigans and are now taking the German government and the NSA investigative committee itself to court for what they see as an obstruction of the committee’s work, more specifically for violating Article 44 of the German constitution, according to which the government is required to support any inquiry of this kind. Support which, according to the plaintiffs, would include making it possible for Edward Snowden to testify in Germany. Looks as if it is now up to Germany’s Federal Constitution Court (the highest court in Germany) to decide whether or not an investigation into NSA surveillance takes precedence over US-German relations. If the court even accepts the lawsuit that is. Even if it does, the matter could take months, if not years, to be resolved.
So while it is good news that Snowden and Rusbridger are being recognised for
courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights (Snowden)
role in “building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices” (Rusbridger),
it should also be obvious that more needs to be done to keep the discussion alive, to communicate the importance of Snowden’s revelations and, in doing so, to make sure that our governments do not fall short of their obligations to us.
Let us be clear: we elect our governments to protect our rights, not infringe them. So far, as government responses to mass surveillance revelations go, we are not seeing enough protection and too much infringement. Another way of honouring Snowden would be to get a little more worked up about that – and to then shout our indignation from the rooftops. Or vote accordingly. Or get encryption. As solutions go, there really are a couple out there. It’s actually not that difficult.
Following some queries, I feel I may need to make a few things a little clearer. The law I mention above that the German government has proposed is not *new* as such but an amendment to the existing Federal Data Protection Law. If passed, the amendment would, according to DIE ZEIT, curb the powers of the data protection commissioner to give evidence in certain cases, even to MPs – which, as I understand it, would effectively mean to curb parliamentary oversight. One such case might well be the investigation into NSA spying. For those who understand German, there is a link in the ZEIT article (second paragraph from the top) to a PDF with the full amendment proposal.