Millions worldwide have expressed their support for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack by Islamic extremists, which left 12 dead. The tragic shooting has since become a referendum on people’s inalienable right to freely express themselves, a sentiment epitomized by the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”).
But while world leaders have joined with the demonstrators in solidarity, some have used the tragedy as a pretext to amp up online surveillance in the name of national security, curbing the very same rights they claim to champion.
On Sunday, European Union leaders issued a joint statement condemning the attack. Buried in that same declaration, which called the shooting a terrorist act against freedom of expression, is a recommendation that could have dire consequences for online speech.
“We are concerned at the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the Internet is not abused to this end,” the statement read.
Their solution? Censor any content that could incite and get the Internet service providers to help out.
“[The] partnership of the major Internet providers is essential to create conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.”
There is, of course, nothing legally binding about the statement, though given what several European leaders have said (more detailed below), it wouldn’t be surprising if various countries take this recommendation very seriously and enact such type of legislation.
It didn’t take long for privacy advocates to highlight the irony of wanting to protect freedom of speech by restricting what can and cannot be said on the Internet.
After acknowledging that Italy’s intelligence service was aware of one of the Charlie Hebdo suspects, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said his country intends to go after those who want “to fight in the theater of war,” and will target recruiters who use the Internet to spread their radical message.
On Friday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that “it may be necessary to take further measures” to combat terrorism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, adding that any potential legislation not be “built in haste.”
That call for a thoughtful approach does not seem to apply for the reinterpretation of current laws. As advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and La Quadrature du Net have pointed out, the French government notified the European Union that it will block access to sites that promote terrorism under its LOPPSI 2 law. LOPPSI grants French officials the authority to block any sites with pornographic or violent content that could be seen by a minor. A provision of LOPPSI also grants police permission to monitor a suspected criminal’s online activity so long as they get approval from a judge.
No one spoke as bluntly about the need to revamp intelligence laws like British Prime Minister David Cameron. If re-elected this year, Cameron has promised to introduce a “comprehensive piece of legislation” that would eliminate any place online where terrorists might be able to communicate without government knowledge. There should be “no means of communication” which “we cannot read,” he said, according to the BBC. “That is applied whether you are sending a letter, whether you are making a phone call, whether you are using a mobile phone, or whether you are using the Internet.”
Cameron also acknowledged that such a law could be “very intrusive,” but that he believes it is compatible with a “modern liberal democracy.”
Here at home, it only took a few hours for Republican senators to begin using the Charlie Hebdo attack to call for strengthening the National Security Administration’s (NSA) intelligence programs, which have been widely criticized for violating American citizens’ right to privacy.
“To me, Congress having oversight certainly is important, but what is more important relative to these types of events is ensuring we don’t overly hamstring the NSA’s ability to collect this kind of information in advance and keep these kinds of activities from occurring,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told the National Journal.
“I fear our intelligence capabilities, those designed to prevent such an attack from taking place on our shores, are quickly eroding,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I believe our national security infrastructure designed to prevent these types of attacks from occurring is under siege.”
That Republicans are talking about the need to not kneecap the NSA is interesting given that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the piece of legislation that made it possible for the collection of telephone metadata, is set to expire on June 1. Past efforts to curtail the NSA’s snooping capabilities have failed. In November, the USA Freedom Act, which would have put the agency under more oversight to ensure civil liberties are being protected, was killed by the Senate.