Whistleblower Edward Snowden does not mince words, and his ardent assessment of our perpetually-dwindling rights in the United States and around the world — offered live in a teleconference Tuesday — certainly didn’t break that mold.
“Government will not act in accordance with the public interest unless it is made to,” Snowden contended, beginning what would arguably be one of the most powerful public appearances since he blew the whistle and the U.S.’ Intelligence Community’s expansive surveillance programs in 2013.
“You may never be safe in any country — whether it’s Brussels, or Russia, or Portugal, or the United States — to speak a necessary, but inconvenient, truth,” he continued, addressing the erosion of free speech, and a lack of justice for those who exercise that right.
Terrorism won’t be combated by governments — nor by invasive surveillance. Rather, Snowden argues, such programs have proven more harmful, overall.
For instance, “the United Kingdom passed the … most extreme surveillance law in the history of the Western World last year — it’s called the Investigatory Powers Bill. It authorizes objectively obscene intrusions into the public’s ability to communicate, to interact, to relate to one another, to engage in industry, to trade — without interference — so long as they’re not doing anything wrong.
“This is justified, of course, as a means of combating terrorism.”
— Estoril Conferences (@EstorilConf) May 30, 2017
Snowden stressed that nation-states invariably target the most extreme speech in platforms such as social media — posts by literal terrorists, child abuse, and other “things that are unobjectively contentious” — but the purview of governmental censorship and surveillance extends far beyond such broadly objectionable items.
However, “there is no public evidence showing that these policies are effective; that they save lives; that they make us safer.
“But there is clear evidence that they cause harm to the public. We have seen people fall on blacklists. We have seen, again and again throughout history, political parties be hamstrung, to face resistance, to be silenced by governments — because of their politics, because of their beliefs, because of their ideologies — which, over time, are always derived from what state security agencies say is a necessary effort to protect the nation.
“I’m not going to so far to say this is sort of an evil plan on behalf of the United Kingdom or any other nation, but we need to focus on one thing, the need for speech, access to free speech, free association, a free press, the ability to pick up a phone and be able to dial someone that you love without worrying about what that looks like in government database somewhere — how that will be reviewed ten years from now, when you get on a politician’s bad side.
“This is the foundation of any free society.”
He added, echoing statements made in previous public appearances,
“Arguing that you don’t care about free speech, because you have nothing to hide; arguing that you don’t care about the censorship of the Internet, because you’re not a criminal … is like arguing you don’t care about freedom of speech, because you have nothing to say.”
Delving into the crucial topic of how we, as a people, can work to thwart abusive overreach by governments — including imperious censorship by a State surreptitiously working to quash dissension, Snowden asserted,
“We need the right of disagreeing. We need the right of dissent. And that means, ladies and gentlemen, we need the right to speak out — even if it’s objectionable. Even if it’s offensive. Even if it’s problematic.
“The way to defeat bad ideas, the way to discredit terrorist ideas, is not by driving them into the shadows. It’s not by censoring them from public spaces.”
Prohibiting such cadres of dangerous thought from seeing the light of day, in effect, creates an echo chamber, hidden from criticism, thus, amplifying perilous ideas — without challenge.
Such censorship and suppression isn’t necessary, Snowden continued, because “these ideas are not attractive; these ideas grow best in the dark.
“If you want to defeat terrorism, if you want to cast down radicalism, don’t hide it in the dark — drag it out into the light. And on the stage of the world, show people why it’s wrong. And why we can do better.”
“Terrorists don’t hate us for our freedom,” the former NSA contractor asserted, “they don’t even know what our freedoms are… Terrorists are incapable of destroying our rights or diminishing our society they lack the strength — only we can do that.”
Lambasted as a traitor to the United States by some and hailed as a hero defender of human rights and constitutional protections by others, Snowden dismissed this dichotomous criticism as entirely moot, stating,
“I say, it doesn’t matter what you think of me as a person. It doesn’t matter if you think I’m the best person in the world, it doesn’t matter if you think I’m the worst person in the world — the facts are the facts, regardless. They are discoverable. And — more import than what people think about me or my reputation — is what you think about what’s going on in the world. What you’re going to do about it. Do you have the capability to influence power, to change the world in a positive direction.”
Changing the world for the better, Snowden told the predominantly German audience attending the Estoril teleconference, begins and ends with all of us — and the imperative of vigilance against encroachment by government on all our rights.
“Rights are lost by cowardly laws that are passed in moments of panic,” he said. “Rights are lost to the cringing complicity of leaders who fear the loss of their office more than the loss of our liberties.”
“It’s not enough to believe that something’s wrong,” Snowden attested. “It’s not enough to disagree with it. It’s not enough to think that things could be better.
“You have to stand for something. You have to go out there and risk something. You have to dare yourself to actually get out there and change the world — even if in a small way, even if only for one person, even if for only one instant, you lay down a brick upon which everyone else can build.”
“That, ladies and gentlemen,” Snowden concluded, “is the only way the world has ever gotten better.”