Last week, English PEN joined a coalition of human rights groups to launch a legal challenge against the actions of the United Kingdom’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), alleging it has illegally intruded on the privacy of millions of British and European citizens. Together with Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, and German internet activist Constanze Kurz, English PEN filed papers at the European Court of Human Rights against the UK Government for its collection of vast amounts of data leaving or entering the UK, including the content of emails and social media messages. We connected with Jo Glanville, Executive Director of English PEN, to find out more about this landmark lawsuit and how surveillance has been received by the British public.

Please explain the new lawsuit to PEN’s readers in your own words.

English PEN has launched a legal challenge to the UK’s internet surveillance activities (known as the Tempora program) at the European Court of Human Rights, in partnership with Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch and Constanze Kurz, a German academic and activist.  We’re arguing that the government’s unchecked surveillance of our communications is a breach of our right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Privacy is a necessary condition for freedom of expression: you cannot communicate and express yourself freely online, unless you can be sure that what you write is confidential. For English PEN, as an organization that campaigns for freedom of expression, and for writers, this case is therefore critical.

Internet surveillance in the UK is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).  The government has been able to bypass the protection of the law when collecting data that’s external to the UK (where the sender or receiver is outside the country). Global warrants appear to have been granted on a rolling basis, and have not been targeted. There is also a very broad definition for national security, which gives a licence for harvesting a worryingly wide range of material.  

There is no domestic remedy for this surveillance in our domestic courts: only a tribunal that meets mostly in secret and there is no possibility of appealing to a higher court. That’s why we’re turning to the European Court.

Edward Snowden’s revelations create major concerns about intelligence sharing between the U.S. and the UK governments. Tell us more about this from the UK perspective. How much does it feel like the sharing is serving U.S. interests and how much is it serving UK interests?

That’s a very good question, to which none of us knows the answer—but it clearly serves the interests of both sides. It’s a serious concern that this information has been freely available to intelligence partners such as the National Security Agency. As our lawyers have put it: it’s equivalent to having all the letters passing through the UK intercepted, stored, copied, and capable of being read by a potentially unlimited number of intelligence agencies around the world, all in the ‘interests of national security.’

What is the public reaction to Snowden’s discoveries?

We’ve been very heartened by the response to our campaign: the public donated £20,000 to our legal costs in the space of 48 hours—which is a significant measure of widespread concern and a great help to our campaign. But there is not the outrage in the media that we’d expect to see, and I’m somewhat baffled by that. It’s a very technical story, and difficult to report perhaps in a way that speaks directly to people’s lives. So maybe it’s down to all of us as campaigners to get the message across.

How about the government reaction? Have their been any changes in policy?

Unfortunately, it has been minimal.

How about the legal reaction in the courts?

Also minimal, but we expect to find out more with our case.

What is the UK’s relationship with surveillance and privacy in general? In the U.S., there’s a stereotype that British culture tends to be reserved and that the British deeply value their privacy, yet the UK has the highest number of surveillance cameras per capita in the world. How does surveillance fit in with the British ethos?

You may have identified a contradiction in the British character. Like everywhere else in the world, we’re grappling with a new communications universe where people are surrendering unprecedented information about themselves online—which has certainly overturned the stereotype of the buttoned up Englishman. At the same time, the state has unprecedented access to information about us, as we’ve all just learned from Edward Snowden’s leaks. So the challenge for all civil liberties campaigners is balancing the protection of one’s privacy from the state and corporations while reckoning with the openness that so many of us are getting more and more comfortable with in our lives.