Henry Farrell on Edward Snowden's Proposed Anti-Surveillance Treaty

Andrew Young — October 23, 2015

For the Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post, Network member Henry Farrell examines NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden’s recently proposed anti-surveillance treaty and David Fidler’s response to Snowden’s proposal for the Council for Foreign Relations. Taking a political science rather than an ideological approach to the situation, Farrell finds the potential for the treaty to take hold to be precarious.

“[T]he proposed Snowden Treaty starts in a better place than most such movements in that it already has well-known people and a nascent cross national civil society movement backing it. As Fidler rightly notes, states sometimes don’t pay much attention to existing privacy norms and treaties, but these treaties may still help. Timothy Edgar argues today that European hypocrisy over privacy may help drive both the EU and U.S. to agree to limit surveillance, thanks to the EU’s Safe Harbor ruling. Perhaps the best way of summing it up would be to say that the Snowden Treaty faces an uphill battle (especially in the U.S., where the Senate makes treaties very hard to pass) – but that its chances are arguably much better than most such proposals.

Political scientists would still likely argue that those odds are better than a strategy that relied on a mixture of civil society activism and encryption to defeat surveillance. States are extremely powerful – they have a monopoly on violence, which allows them them to tell civil society actors, businesses and consumers what they can or cannot do and to punish them if they do not comply. Political science’s fundamental insight (or, perhaps, bias) is that it’s effectively impossible to avoid politics, and that in a state dominated world, successful strategies of change will be more likely to focus on changing what states do than on trying generally to defeat or undermine them.”

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