The Myth of a Transnational Anti-Surveillance Community

Till Waescher

Even though they were conceptualized and steered by U.S. based organizations, the grassroots campaigns following the Snowden leaks featured an international roster of participants who to varying degrees contributed to the strategy and framings. A great deal of these US-based activists sought out privacy activists from the so called ‘Global South’ to share their experiences with surveillance apparatuses in authoritarian contexts. In turn, groups from Latin America, the Maghreb region, or East Africa saw great benefits in joining U.S.-led, international privacy campaigns.

The importance, especially for groups from those regions to take part in such campaigns should not be understated. For them presenting their case in the transnational arena is an indispensable tool to evoke reactions from authoritarian governments who are generally not responsive to domestic civil society claims. In turn, inviting activists from non-western countries to talk about privacy breaches in their national contexts were used as warning signs against unchecked surveillance in Europe and the U.S. However, these occasional encounters between activists from around the world have not led to the formation of a organized transnational privacy movement.

From the outset, the international privacy activist scene had all the prerequisites for evolving into a transnational movement. For example, many privacy activists see themselves as global citizens and had been heavily inspired by the international protest waves that rocked the world following the global political and financial crises in the late 2000s. They frequently characterized themselves as cosmopolitans caring about the privacy rights of all people not just those from their home country. As an activist described it, the privacy community was a “fairly international bunch of people and so it is natural for them to extend their concerns that way.” But the community’s  support for international campaigns was less about their efficacy than about demonstrating transnational solidarity to the outside world. Their symbolic power seemed to transcend their ability to generate tangible legal results. As two activists from Eastern Europe put it, “the idea is that we are all across the globe sharing the same problems.” To read the full post, click here.

Six Frames Against Surveillance

Till Wäscher, School of International and Intercultural Communication & TU Dortmund

For years, privacy advocates had been speculating about a possible “Privacy Chernobyl” – a major scandal that would put the issue of surveillance on the global agenda and create a mass social movement against privacy intrusions committed by governments and corporations.[1] In the summer of 2013, this speculation became reality. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents detailing the mass surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and its international partners caused – to stick to the nuclear disaster analogy – a temporary meltdown of public trust by citizens around the world.

The Snowden revelations revitalized in the public consciousness an almost forgotten genre of contentious politics – privacy activism. The main objective of this blog series is to identify, analyse, and critically assess the political communication of activists during anti-surveillance campaigns in the first year after the Snowden revelations to better understand the ways in which these issues have been framed by activists, understood by the public, portrayed by the media, and potentially acted upon in a variety of contexts.  

The series is based on the author’s dissertation on political communication tactics of the global privacy community for which he conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with activists from 14 countries. This first post in the series focuses on the core collective action frames against surveillance, articulated by the privacy activist community over the course of four campaigns: “Restore the Fourth/1984 Day” (July-August, 2013), “Stop Watching Us” (October, 2013), “The Day We Fight Back” (February, 2014), and “Reset the Net” (July, 2o14). These were largely on U.S.-centric protests; subsequent pieces in the series will explore how resistance to surveillance has been framed in other parts of the world.

Legal Frames

“Restore the Fourth” was the first attempt to organize and protest surveillance issues after the Snowden revelations. Mainly coordinated through message boards on the social news website Reddit, in more than 80 American cities (as well in Munich, Germany) people took to the streets to protest NSA surveillance. The three core demands of the “Restore the Fourth” network were to reform section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act; the creation of an oversight committee to keep checks on surveillance programs; and initiate accountability measures for public service figures involved in domestic spying activities.

Much of the communication efforts by… (click here to read the rest of this post).