Our colleagues at the PEN American Center published this interview yesterday with our Director, Jo Glanville.
Last week, English PEN joined a coalition of human rights groups to launch a legal challenge against the actions of the United Kingdom’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), alleging it has illegally intruded on the privacy of millions of British and European citizens. Together with Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, and German internet activist Constanze Kurz, English PEN filed papers at the European Court of Human Rights against the UK Government for its collection of vast amounts of data leaving or entering the UK, including the content of emails and social media messages. We connected with Jo Glanville, Executive Director of English PEN, to find out more about this landmark lawsuit and how surveillance has been received by the British public.
Please explain the new lawsuit to PEN’s readers in your own words.
English PEN has launched a legal challenge to the UK’s internet surveillance activities (known as the Tempora program) at the European Court of Human Rights, in partnership with Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch and Constanze Kurz, a German academic and activist. We’re arguing that the government’s unchecked surveillance of our communications is a breach of our right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Privacy is a necessary condition for freedom of expression: you cannot communicate and express yourself freely online, unless you can be sure that what you write is confidential. For English PEN, as an organization that campaigns for freedom of expression, and for writers, this case is therefore critical.
Internet surveillance in the UK is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The government has been able to bypass the protection of the law when collecting data that’s external to the UK (where the sender or receiver is outside the country). Global warrants appear to have been granted on a rolling basis, and have not been targeted. There is also a very broad definition for national security, which gives a licence for harvesting a worryingly wide range of material.
There is no domestic remedy for this surveillance in our domestic courts: only a tribunal that meets mostly in secret and there is no possibility of appealing to a higher court. That’s why we’re turning to the European Court.