This is huge news: the European Court of Human Rights has
agreed to hear a challenge to bulk Internet surveillance by the UK spy agency GCHQ. The case was brought by Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and English PEN, and German Internet activist Constanze Kurz. This is a rare instance of "impact litigation" in the UK, where a bad law or practice can be ended swiftly and decisively by having a court hear a test-case about the law and rule on its constitutionality. This tactic has been incredibly effective in the US — EFF's famous Bernstein victory, which legalized strong cryptography, is a good example — but has been less available to UK activists.
ORG and the other organisations in the suit are raising a war-chest to pay for the expensive business of suing the British government in a
Brussels Strasbourg court. At stake is the principle that innocent people, suspected of no crime, have the right to go about their daily business without having all their communications, associations, and activities surveilled and added to giant dossiers maintained by secret government agencies.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: 'We now know that GCHQ operate a central database of communications despite Parliament being told such a database would not be built. This legal challenge is an essential part of getting to the bottom of why the public and Parliament have not been properly informed about the scale of surveillance and why our privacy has been subverted on an industrial scale.'
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: 'The government has so far failed to address the revelations about GCHQ's activities with any sense of urgency. We're delighted that the European Court of Human Rights has made the action a priority. This only ever happens in a minority of cases and is a measure of the significant international concern about the UK's unchecked surveillance.'
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said: 'The digital age comes with the potential for government to try to monitor everything and everyone almost constantly. We've learnt that our laws have been abused to fulfil this ambition.'
Daniel Carey, Solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors, who represent the applicants, said: 'The European Court of Human Rights has acted remarkably quickly in communicating the case to the Government and designating it as a priority. It has also acted decisively by requiring the Government to explain how the UK's surveillance practices and oversight mechanisms comply with the right to privacy. This gives real hope to the public that the European Court of Human Rights will require reform if the Government continues to insist that nothing is wrong.'
Constanze Kurz, computer scientist and Internet activist, said: 'The European Court of Human Rights expects fast answers from the British government. It is vital now that human rights and the respect of the privacy of millions of people will also be prioritized not only by the British government and parliament but also at EU level.