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Freedom is acting without asking permission, says Snowden

Sabine Peschel als
September 11, 2017

Edward Snowden called on a Berlin audience via livestream to stand up and act on their freedoms – without asking permission. He also hinted at a new encryption technology he's co-developing to circumvent surveillance.

Edward Snowden via livestream at ILB in Berlin
Image: DW/S. Peschel

"In order for us to lead, we have to not be led ourselves. And for me, I think that is what freedom is about," whistleblower Edward Snowden told an audience of writers and intellectuals in Berlin via livestream from Moscow over the weekend.

For Snowden, freedom ranges from freedom of speech and the expression of one's opinion, to freedom from war or being unjustly imprisoned or deported. But the basic tenet underlying such freedoms is the need for the protection of one's privacy and one's own self.

He continued, "When it comes to the self, that inherent seed that makes a person a person, these things must be free from permission. You don't ask; you act. That's freedom."

Edward Snowden, who answered questions posed via live video feed by German-British writer Priya Basil, was a featured guest at the a five-hour event called "Long Night of Demcracy" at the annual International Literature Festival Berlin. 

Former NSA cyber security expert Snowden has lived in exile in Russia for the past four years, after revealing that the US security agency gathered data on billions of private individuals. The US maintains a warrant for his arrest.

Read more: NSA spying scandal committee presents controversial final report

'Technology cannot save us'

How does one protect and preserve freedom in a period of rapidly increasingly digital control and surveillance? Without explicitly saying so, Snowden appears to be working with others on new forms of encryption technology.

It's a technology that would allow users to communicate online without being able to be traced, "without requiring a huge burden of knowledge," Snowden said.

NSA inquiry committee a 'big success'

The internet could help to make the world a better place, Snowden observed, while also pointing out that "we are living in dangerous period" in the age of the Trump presidency.

However, he also said that people must take a stand.

"Technology cannot save us; only people can save us. It is not enough to believe in something. Belief has never changed the world. Only standing for these beliefs has done that. So stand up and be counted! Say something! Express yourself. Use that freedom to act, without permission and to say to the world: 'This is not enough. We will create a better world. We will begin now!'"

Writers call for change

The event at the International Literature Festival, which runs through September 16, kicked off a two-and-a-half day symposium on democracy and freedom over the weekend that brought together renowned authors and thinkers from all over the world.

Turkish author Elif Safak spoke of a growing "team of the depressed"among writers.

Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, who lives in the US, sees militaristic, authoritarian counter-movements having the upper hand rather than revolutions.

Meanwhile, Indian author Arundhati Roy says that a silent war against the people is occurring in Hindu-nationalistic India.

The subject matter had its own precedents, said festival director Ulrich Schreiber. He pointed to the International Writers Conference in Paris in 1935, where authors spoke out against the rise of fascism in Europe, and the Russell Tribunal in Stockholm in 1966, which addressed US military intervention in Vietnam.

The bottom line among all the writers was that one must fight to preserve freedom and democracy.

Eliot Weinberger
Eliot Weinberger says we need to stop thinking in terms of Western political categoriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Garriga

Democracy as an international network

Many of the intellectuals at the "Long Night of Democracy" aimed to articulate ideas and strategies for shaping the future, though no one model will suffice, they agreed.

Also, "voting is simply not enough," said Argentinian Pia Mancini, who lives in the United States.

Governments are no longer able to respond quickly enough to change, she noted. Instead, one must begin to define democracy in a new way - as an international network. One must also be willing to experiment.

The concept of a "liquid democracy" foresees people from all different backgrounds being able to actively participate in democracies across borders. Territorial borders and the random nature of one's birthplace should no longer play a role, Mancini said.

Read more: Opinion: Kenya's annulled elections are a victory for democracy

Adam Michnik
Models of hate can fail, says Adam MichnikImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

Award-winning American writer and translator Eliot Weinberger thinks in a similar vein. He called his own country the "wealthiest banana republic in the world," concluding, "We undoubtedly need new models of democracy."

Such models could stem from Rwanda or from a Mexican Indian community, he noted, adding that we must stop thinking only in Western political categories.

Polish essayist and journalist Adam Michnik was interested in the political distortions of the past few decades. With a view to rising autocratic tendencies in Russia, Hungary and Poland, the former dissident said people are obligated to stand up in resistance.

Yet he also said there was hope: "This illness can be cured. These models of hate and darkness, Trump's speech, Brexit - they can all lose and fail. But whether they fail, and whether we can protect the EU, that depends on us."