Till Waescher

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. 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 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 fourth post in the series focuses on the degree of transnational cooperation – or lack thereof – between digital rights advocates as well as the ways in which global actors were utilized within US domestic messages.

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.”

For activists from the “Global South”, their standing and recognition in their home countries to a great deal depended on transnational campaigns. Without international support, there was no way to pressure their authoritarian governments. Indeed, as an activist from an East African country with a long history of government oppression pointed out, domestic activism in his country was largely ignored by his government. Instead transnational campaigns were the only means of raising awareness of surveillance: “International [campaigns and publications] have made a big contribution on how to make our government really listen.”

However, despite all the praise for transnational campaigns and the community’s self-described cosmopolitans, a closer look revealed a different picture– that of a transnational movement that was rather imagined than existing in any tangible and sustainable sense. Despite enormous advancements in communications technology, it appeared that little strategizing or planning occurred across borders for large protest events or for everyday advocacy. The reasons for this lack of constant transnational exchange within the privacy activist community included limited capacities, internal disagreements, and an overwhelming focus on national campaigns. For example when asked about their involvement in the US-led campaign “The Day We Fight Back”, an activist from Europe gave this telling response:

We don’t do [transnational campaigns]. I wouldn’t be doing this. It is not our mission. It is not in our tactics. Yes, we joined the ‘The Day We Fight Back’ and they were using us because we had legal actions pending and they could be an inspiration for others. But externally it is nothing more than communication.”

While the EDRI (European Digital Rights Initiative, an umbrella organization for many of the continent’s most influential national digital rights groups) had a strong presence, cooperation happened, as one activist described it, through “sudden coalitions happening on an issue.” But first and foremost the scope of each European organization was national, as another activist explained unambigously:

“Our focus is, we want to protect the privacy and freedom of communication of [our country’s] internet users (…).This is our focus. So when it is (…) [about] Internet freedom in India, for example, (…) [it’s] really interesting but we are not working on that at all. It’s just like we see the headlines, we read some documents and then we go on. Because our focus is on civil rights for [our country’s] internet users. This means (…) we [only] work (…) on the European level, when it has an influence on the civil rights of [our country’s] internet users. This is why although we would love to talk to, for example, I don’t know, Russian organizations or maybe [those] in Thailand… We do meet these people for example at conferences or at these places but for our work there is no relevancy to work together. (…)”

Another activist, from Eastern Europe, outright refused to engage on a transnational level: “No, [we do not have a global scope]. It would be ridiculous to imagine that we started global campaigns, because it is not our mission. Our mission is to act in [our country] and to deal with issues that affect [our country’s] society.”

When activists were pressed about their involvement in transnational campaigns they oftentimes defended their relative lack of participation by repeating the very same ‘my country first’ –mantra. International surveillance issues were only of importance if they were related to developments in the domestic realm: “Do we work together?” an activist from the U.S. asked rhetorically,

“No, not really. If there are international days of recognition of access or privacy, sure, to increase awareness for the educational component of it. (…) [W]e talk about the international legislation events – but only things that will directly or indirectly affect [U.S. citizens]. (…) So we do what we can. [But] there is only so many hours in the day though.”

Even during supposedly transnational protest campaigns, communication between activists in different countries was close to non-existent. An example would be the “Stop Watching Us” campaign that took place simultaneously in the U.S. and Germany in October, 2013. Instead of jointly planning the event, German and American activists did nothing together beyond sharing the “Stop Watching Us” label. Consider this account by a German privacy activist about the lack of cooperation between activists from both countries:

“There was hardly any communication. Afterwards, in December 2013, we met some of our American counterparts, who had somehow heard that there had been ‘Stop Watching Us’ demonstrations in Germany. [But at the time of the event] there were some tweets [sent out by American activists] mentioning a German movement – I guess they wanted to promote that. But there was never any form of collaboration. Months later I got to know some of the American activists at a conference but we did not talk about planning a joint event or campaign in the future. It was rather like ‘Great that you guys are doing the same stuff.’ But other than that there was nothing.”

Given that the Snowden leaks had exposed a transnational mass surveillance apparatus,  there was very little transnational cooperation in developing strategy and narrative framing of the issues. This is particularly remarkable in an age of ICTs that would in theory make the planning of truly transnational protest events easier. Of all things, one would have expected digital rights-centric campaigns to utilize stronger, ICT-fueled “communication power.” [1]  In the end, and in line with Sidney Tarrow’s assessment of the limits of transnational activism,[2] local– or even hyperlocal – anti-surveillance claims were brought to the international level and vice versa but no unified and lasting global anti-surveillance claim was made.

Instead of a real, permanent, and highly organized transnational movement there have been only imagined, temporary, and uncoordinated transnational alliances. While the Snowden leaks attracted temporary and short lived transnational coalitions, national debates over privacy and surveillance persist. However, framing resistance against surveillance in transnational terms does carry out an important symbolical function as it links together the many different cultural understandings of privacy that exist in each region or country. Even though transnational solidarity articulated in the campaigns was more of a communication device than reality, the relatively easy and cheap way to join a campaign (even if it only involved signing a petition or sending out an email) made it possible for activists to be part of an imagined global front against the international intelligence apparatus.



[1]           Castells, Manuel. Communication Power. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[2]           Tarrow, Sidney G. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.