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PEN International joins over 100 organisations in supporting the International Principles on the Applications of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance

Thursday 15 August 2013 - 6:06pm

PEN International joins over 100 organisations in supporting the International Principles on the Applications of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance which set minimum standards for the protection of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy at a time when these rights continue to be under threat around the world.

Recent revelations of the mass collection of communications data of innocent people by the NSA and GCHQ has serious implications for the right to freedom of expression. The knowledge that people’s most private communications are liable to be inspected by others is likely to have a profound chilling effect on the free flow of information and opinion and is likely to deter whistle-blowers from coming forward and journalists from investigating government wrongdoing.

This mass intrusion on the privacy of innocent people demonstrates that current legal frameworks in democracies are inadequate and outdated for protecting fundamental rights and freedoms in the digital age. In response to the increasing number of government surveillance standards that focus on law enforcement and "national security" priorities instead of citizens' rights, these International Principles (led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy International and Acces) include advice on how surveillance laws should respect the law, due process, and include public oversight and transparency.

The International Principles complement and elaborate upon Article 3 of PEN International’s Declaration on Digital Freedom, “All persons have the right to be free from government surveillance of digital media.” The principles articulate what international human rights law – which binds every country across the globe – require of governments in the digital age. They speak to a growing global consensus that modern surveillance has gone too far and needs to be restrained. They also give benchmarks that PEN Centres and PEN members around the world can use to evaluate and push for changes in their own legal systems.

They call for:
• Clear laws governing how state authorities may access communications data
• Communications data to be given the same protection as the content of communications
• Access to communications data should be authorised by a competent judicial authority
• Prior or post user notification that a request for communications data has been authorised
• Transparency about the use and scope of communications surveillance powers
• Effective public oversight of the implementation of surveillance laws
• Better protection for the integrity of communications and systems
• Strong privacy safeguards in mutual legal assistance treaties
• The introduction of criminal offences against illegitimate access to communications data
• The protection of whistleblowers.

The Principles reinforce a growing global consensus that human rights must be at the heart of governments’ communications surveillance policy. Reacting to the revelations over the scope of the NSA surveillance programs, Frank LaRue, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the United Nations, and Catalina Botero, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, recently released a “Joint Declaration containing the basic principles of international law that guide the design and implementation of surveillance programs intended to combat terrorism and defend national security.”

PEN International calls on PEN Centres, digital rights groups and privacy advocates to endorse the principles and use them in addition to PEN’s Declaration on Digital Freedom as a driving force for a complete overhaul of domestic surveillance laws which fail our democratic ideals and traditions.

For more information on PEN International’s work on Digital Freedom, please see or contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer,