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Authors protest spying

Kevin CoteDecember 10, 2013

Over 550 writers from 83 countries have signed a petition calling on the UN to adopt an international bill of digital rights. They speak of government intransigence in protecting citizens from electronic spying.

German authors presenting the petition in Berlin
Image: DW/Heiner Kiesel

Presenting the initiative in Berlin on Tuesday, German writer Juli Zeh, one of the initiators of the petition, said she was motivated after she wrote earlier this year to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressing her concern about revelations that US intelligence agencies were spying on German citizens. The letter went unanswered.

"We no longer want to watch decision makers refuse to take action," said Zeh. Swedish writer Janne Teller, another initiator, said governments could not be expected to act, because they were themselves involved in electronic surveillance.

The petition appears in the December 10 editions of newspapers in 30 countries, such as The Guardian and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Among the signatories are five Nobel Prize winners and other internationally acclaimed artists. Among them are J.M. Coetzee, Günter Grass, Richard Ford, Martin Amis and Ian McEwen.

Newspapers in the US treat the petition as political advertising, and said they could not publish it without charging for it as advertising. The initiative is independent, and has no funding.

The initiative is called Writers Against Mass Surveillance. The authors who founded it say surveillance is a violation of the private sphere that compromises freedom of thought.

Initiative member Ilija Trojanow, who was denied entry to the US, said he hoped the petition will evolve into a global movement. "Because this is a fundamental attack on our rights to privacy, there has to be a fundamental resistance," Trojanow explained.

Writers call for a digital bill of rights

The German-Bulgarian writer is openly critical of allegations that US intelligence services routinely monitor the communications of people in Germany. In October he wanted to travel to the US for a conference, but was turned away at the border without being told why.

Initiative members now expect that thousands of writers will join the cause now that the petition is online at change.org. “We know that many of our colleagues have thought a lot about this, but they have yet to say anything in public,” said Trojanow.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is pressing for a “no-spying” agreement with the United States following revelations in October by former security analyst Edward Snowden that US intelligence services had monitored her cell phone. The incident caused a furore in Germany, where the Writers Against Mass Surveillance initiative was started.

Germany's BITCOM ICT lobbying group has released the results of a survey that suggests 80 per cent of internet users in Germany now believe their data is not safe. In 2011 only 55 per cent believed their personal data was not safe.

Initiative members say they are not against the internet, only against its growing potential to seriously undermine human rights. They stress that without the internet, the petition never would have happened.

“We are aware of the irony in our emails suddenly popping up unannounced in people's e-mail boxes,” said UK-based writer Priya Basel on Tuesday. “But the difference is that our e-mails were open. We weren't spying.”