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In Europe: First the Calls for 'Unity,' Then the Calls for 'More Spy Power'

In wake of deadly events in Paris, calls begin to emerge for more government powers related to internet surveillance

'Scapegoating and surveillance are the watchwords of modern counterterrorism policy.' (Image: CD/Creative Commons)

Less than a week after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a related hostage situation at a kosher grocery in Paris, the calls for 'unity' and occasions for mourning are being punctuated by familiar demands from goverment officials for additional measures of response: More surveillance and the criminalizing of provocative speech.

"Let us resist attempts to use this tragic moment as an opportunity to advance law enforcement surveillance powers. Freedom of speech can only thrive when we also have the right to privacy."
—Jillian York, EFF
In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron is now calling for new legislation that would grant the government greater authority to search and intercept the online communications of those it believes are engaged in criminal behavior or the planning of violent attacks.

According to the Guardian on Tuesday:

[Cameron's] proposed legislation, which would be introduced within the first year of Cameron’s second term in Downing Street if the Conservatives win the election, would provide a new legal framework for Britain’s GCHQ and other intelligence agencies to crack the communications of terror suspects if there was specific intelligence of an imminent attack. Political approval would also be necessary.

The prime minister outlined his plans after meeting Britain’s intelligence chiefs in the wake of the Paris attacks. He promised to ensure there would be what officials describe as “no no-go areas” on the net where terrorists can hide.

Speaking after giving a speech on the economy in Nottingham, Cameron said: “In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”


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On Monday, meanwhile, a joint statement (pdf) put out by the interior ministers of twelve European nations called for, as Natasha Lomas at TechCrunch reports, "greater powers of digital surveillance to preemptively thwart acts of terror." Known derisively as the "Snoopers' Charter" by critics, the ministers indicate their support for a new set of regulations across Europe that would coordinate surveillance of the internet with a specific aim to shut down dialogue determined to be "terrorist propaganda" or communications capable of "fueling hatred and violence."

Though predictable, Lomas blasts the ministers for representing the worst kind of response to the attacks in Paris.

"Bottom line," she writes:  "It’s a lot easier for governments to spread blame outwards, extending responsibility for countering terrorism beyond their own boundaries — onto an amorphous and ‘dangerous’ Internet. That also creates a parallel impetus for them to increase surveillance of a now perilously implicated Internet. And so we get to the latest calls for increased surveillance, post-Paris terrorist atrocity. Scapegoating and surveillance are the watchwords of modern counterterrorism policy, and the Internet is its apparent application layer."

As Jillian York, the director of the  International Freedom of Expression project at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on Monday, "Mass surveillance doesn’t only infringe on our privacy, but also our ability to speak freely."

Given what society's have learned about the contemporary nature of online surveillance since the revelations made possible by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden began to surface, Lomax says the possible impacts of new efforts to increase such digital spying in Europe are profound. Given the stakes, Lomas hopes that Europe's politicians will "think carefully before they pull the policy trigger."

And worrying about Europe's knee-jerk response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo, York concluded, "Let us resist attempts to use this tragic moment as an opportunity to advance law enforcement surveillance powers. Freedom of speech can only thrive when we also have the right to privacy."

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