Edward Snowden has proposed a new treaty. Here’s why it might or might not take off.

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 14, 2015

At the Council for Foreign Relations Web site, David Fidler says that Edward Snowden isn’t radical enough. He identifies three problems with the proposal that Snowden, David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have made for a treaty to stop indiscriminate surveillance and protect whistle blowers.

First, Fidler argues that existing treaties recognize the right to privacy – so why do we need a new one? Second – given that states “don’t abide by existing treaties, [why would they] now decide to respect one that enshrines privacy as a fundamental right and outlaws mass surveillance?” Third – why would states agree to any innovative new compliance mechanisms, given that they’re not interested in actually complying? Fidler claims that “this predictable problem explains why oversight mechanisms in human rights treaties are notoriously weak. Put another way, states can riddle bulletproof documents with holes because they, not privacy advocates, write treaty rules. Oddly, the Snowden-treaty movement wants us to traipse, once again, into this cul-de-sac.”

Instead of a treaty, Fidler proposes a Snowden Charter, “an accord among civil society, consumers, and technology companies to confront governments and confound mass surveillance through, among other things, continuing to expand encryption in our digital lives.”

Without getting into political questions about whether a Snowden Treaty (or Snowden Charter) would be a good or bad idea, Fidler’s arguments provide a valuable contrast to political science arguments about treaties. Fidler knows a lot about the Snowden controversies. He is also a law professor interested in how non-state approaches could solve international problems. In general, political scientists are more skeptical about civil society based approaches than Fidler seems to be. Here’s why.

Snowden, Greenwald and their allies are not that radical

Contrary to public perceptions, neither Edward Snowden or Glenn Greenwald are very radical, as I discuss in an article for the National Interest. Snowden is a libertarian – but one who supported President Obama’s initial presidential campaign, and who has said he’s content to let the existing democratic system decide how to deal with his revelations. Greenwald is a pugnacious American Civil Liberties Union style liberal, with a strong bias towards free speech. Both are plausibly within the mainstream of American politics, and it is unsurprising that they advocate a mainstream solution, such as a treaty. This is not to say, of course, that their views aren’t controversial – but the controversies surrounding their views and actions are similar to previous disputes that divided mainstream opinion (e.g. over the Pentagon Papers) in which people disagreed over the relationship between national secrecy laws and free public debate.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post