This website is an archive of the work of Marietje Schaake in the European Parliament between 2009 and 2019. Marietje can be reached at

Media: Nowhere left to hide? - Volta

Gaston Dorren, Volta, 23.10.2013 In January 2011, Egyptian protesters found themselves deprived of digital communication as western companies switched off systems in compliance with the orders of the Mubarak government. Chinese bloggers, on the other hand, managed to outwit massive state censorship and found Google on their side, at least, that is, after a company policy change in 2010. In Syria, the Assad regime is capable of bombing civilian targets but unable to clamp down entirely on the opposition forces’ livestreaming the atrocities. The National Security Agency of the US government, which routinely analyses the online activities of all of us, would probably have made a better job of that. There can be no doubt that a new frontline has opened between governments that don’t trust their citizens and citizens who don’t trust their governments. The battle is an old one, of course, but the crucial part played in it by digital technology is quite recent. “In many countries, it’s people at the forefront of the struggle for freedom who bring about change, and that struggle is increasingly being played out online”, says Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake, author of the Digital Freedom Strategy in EU Foreign Policy, a report adopted by the European Parliament last year. A lot has been made of how the internet and mobile telephones empower people, and examples are easy to find. But as Schaake’s report points out, governments and terrorists are equally keen to use these technologies. With all computers connected to one searchable network and all telephone data interceptable, there’s nowhere left to hide for dissidents. It’s true that not all repressive regimes are currently as tech-savvy and well equipped as China and Iran, but it will not be long before others catch up. Schaake’s outlook, however, is pragmatic: “I don’t think repressive governments can create watertight systems to control their citizens. It’s more of a cat-andmouse game. People keep finding ingenious ways to get digital information out of their country and to access information. Actually, several technological innovations have started with individuals under pressure, e.g. in Tibet, where people learned how to circumvent cyber attacks from China. In China, people use metaphors and puns to get their message across on social media. Even though the censorship apparatus employs at least 30,000 people and is continuously updating the list of politically sensitive terms, they can’t stop online discussions of government blunders and other political issues. So I think that the jury is still out, and that’s why this is the moment to develop smart policies in defence of digital freedom. After all, the EU claims to be not a mere economic community, but one of values too, and its support for global freedom of expression reflects that. Unfortunately, this support is fragmented across several policy areas and, what’s worse, it has a blind spot for digital media. Technology has developed so fast that most politicians, both in Europe and elsewhere, just haven’t kept up. I can only hope the American Congress would not have given the NSA such a wide mandate if they’d understood the actual implications.” Leading by example So what should the EU do to catch up with the times in its defence of freedom of expression? If governments and citizens are indeed playing a cat-and-mouse game, how can it empower the mice rather than the cats? “In the report, I’ve set out to make digital freedoms a common theme in a whole range of foreign and security policies”, Schaake says. “Trade policy is one. There should be a framework for restricting the export of what I term ‘digital weapons’. Some technologies have quite obviously been developed and are even being marketed for purposes that are blatant violations of human rights. Take mass surveillance systems, for example. I don’t think there can ever be any justification for those, in any country. Mass surveillance is always a disproportionate measure to take. So you definitely don’t want to export such technologies to countries like Syria – but that’s exactly what some European companies have been doing. Some other technologies are okay for countries with a firm rule of law. For instance, it can be legitimate for the police to practice lawful interception – although even within the EU, excesses occur. But you don’t want to export that sort of technology to countries where the law carries little weight, so that people’s fundamental rights go unprotected.” The EU hasn’t got a monopoly on digital monitoring, tracking and tracing, surveillance and censoring technologies. So why bother to restrict exports if nasty regimes can go shopping elsewhere? “Of course, it would be utopian to think we can stop digital weapon systems being developed and traded altogether. But in politics, you have to practice what you preach, even when it costs money. I’m a strong believer in leading by example. It’s the best way to convince other countries to do likewise and the next step may be to suggest an international convention. You always have to start somewhere: the ban on cluster munitions wouldn’t have happened if some countries hadn’t taken a first step, regardless of economic interests. In many cases, the right thing to do is also economically smart. Apart from hurting human rights, China’s censorship and surveillance also make it harder for western companies to operate in line with their own corporate policies..” What else can Europe do? “We’re the world’s largest development aid donor. We can use this position to fight corruption and to further transparency. Technology can empower people, and that’s what we should look for. When we insist that governments publish their budgets online, it becomes easier for journalists and activists to scrutinise government spending and more difficult for officials to embezzle large sums of money. Technology can also help prevent vote rigging. When I was an election observer in Nigeria, I was impressed by Project Swift Count whereby a huge number of local citizens witnessed the counting process and sent text messages with their polling stations’ results to a central office. The aggregated figures were then compared to the official results. The EU could facilitate systems like this elsewhere. The EU Neighbourhood Policy is another important area. We’re the main trading partner of most neighbouring countries, which potentially gives us strong leverage. A number of these countries are also candidate member states and will therefore have to meet the Copenhagen criteria [the rules that determine whether a country is eligible to join the EU, for example, democratic stability]. I’m happy to say that in response to a question I asked the Commission, digital freedoms have been included in these criteria. Security policy too could be a tool to guarantee digital freedom. But what actually happens, both in Europe and America, is that our freedom gets curtailed under the guise of cyber security or the war on terror. Politicians tend to perceive security and liberty as a trade-off, a zero-sum game. It’s not! If you want to defend your freedoms against an outside threat, eroding them from within is an extremely contradictory and counterproductive thing to do.” Beyond the engineering approach For those who still feel that the internet is more suited for repression than democratisation, Schaake has a few more suggestions designed to shift the balance. “In Egypt, western companies would have been in a stronger position in resisting the regime’s instructions to switch off the internet if the EU had had a clear policy in place. We should state unambiguously that European companies are not allowed to do such a thing and give them political support when it comes to the crunch. This incident was a first, and we should draw lessons from it. We should not underestimate the influence companies have on the internet infrastructure.” Companies should also be encouraged to think harder about the effects their innovations may have on society. “An engineering approach alone is too narrow; technology developers should be aware of their social responsibility. It’s shocking to see what some very clever technologies end up doing in countries like Bahrain, Azerbaijan and all the others we’ve talked about. Do you remember how Apple wanted to introduce a system that would enable cinemas to automatically switch off the camera function in telephones? I can see why Hollywood would want that, but just imagine how many governments would be delighted to have such systems in places where the police crack down on protesters, for instance. We can’t stop that technology developing, but we can decide that certain applications should not be used. Digital face recognition is a good example: after an outcry against it, Facebook decided to turn it off. It would have been better if they’d thought before they acted.” The paternalistic temptation Obviously, there’s no excuse for repression, but couldthere conceivably be a place for benign paternalism when it comes to internet access? After all, the web opens the floodgates to an incredible amount of mostly western information and values, ranging from some of the noblest to much of the lowest. In a society unaccustomed to such exposure, this may well be a bit overwhelming and even destabilising– much like the printing press in 15th century Europe. But Schaake won’t have it: “It’s the sort of discourse governments like to use when they want to limit freedom. Russia, for instance, justifies deep package inspection under the guise of defending intellectual property rights and protecting minors against pornography. My position is: the freer the internet, the better.”