The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis. We need to take warnings from medical professionals seriously and do everything we can to slow down the spread of the virus and save lives. We must also ensure that governments and corporations do not endanger us further by increasing surveillance, censoring speech, and detaining people indefinitely without trial. There will be a world after this coronavirus outbreak. It’s up to us to make it a world worth living in.Sign the Pledge
We pledge to do our part by taking the advice of public health officials seriously during the COVID-19 pandemic. We call on government officials and business leaders of the world to take urgent action to slow the spread of COVID-19, and provide immediate economic relief for those most impacted. But it’s essential for our leaders to protect our health and safety while also protecting our civil liberties and basic human rights. We oppose measures that:
Medical experts have warned that crackdowns on basic liberties can actually make the pandemic worse. We must preserve our humanity and basic rights during this crisis, and for the future that awaits us when it’s over.
This coronavirus is a serious world health crisis. People are right to be concerned. Governments and companies should encourage people to practice social distancing, and provide immediate economic relief for those most impacted. Experts tell us these unprecedented actions are necessary to flatten the curve and ensure our health care system can care for those who need it.
But in addition to medical experts, governments should be including civil liberties and human rights experts in conversations about how to respond to this crisis, to ensure our basic freedoms are being considered. Increased surveillance, censorship, and other authoritarian policies will make people less safe, not more safe. We must protect our basic human rights now. If people don’t speak up, crackdowns on our basic freedoms will spread as quickly as the virus itself.
Here are things that governments and corporations absolutely should not do:
The U.S. government is talking with tech companies about expanding surveillance, like accessing location tracking data from smartphones. The governments in Israel, Singapore, and Australia have already been using invasive surveillance technology to track the real-time movements of people infected with COVID-19, even publicly revealing the names and home addresses of victims of the disease. China is using facial recognition to track citizens’ movements.
These actions raise major red flags. The data that governments can access from smartphones can expose personal details about peoples’ lives, including their social networks, relationships, political and religious affiliations. There are few protections in place that would ensure data that governments collect is safeguarded, and abuse is almost inevitable. Governments could collect data for medical reasons but then use it for a completely different purpose, such as law enforcement or targeting religious minorities. Some lawmakers are raising alarms about how this would threaten privacy, but because these conversations are taking place greatly in secrecy, it’s possible such tracking could start happening without the public’s knowledge or permission.
More invasive monitoring and tracking of our movements and communications will not make us safer. Instead of increasing efforts to track us and restrict our movements through unnecessary force, our government should focus on testing and treating more people, while also taking precautions to ensure that we are better prepared to handle future outbreaks without trampling human rights.
Companies like Google and Facebook are sharing our location data with governments in order to track and monitor our movements. Facial recognition companies are trying to use this health crisis as an opportunity to spread their invasive tech. This is not an opportunity for companies to expand their business or violate our privacy by handing over personal information that people have not agreed to.
Instead these companies should be doing all they can to make sure medical staff have the materials they need—like masks and ventilators, providing information and opportunities for people to connect, and protecting our personal information from governments’ efforts to access our data.
The Chinese government has been censoring discussions about the spread of COVID-19 on social media, even going so far as to threaten doctors who tried to warn the public of the severity of the epidemic. In America, the White House initially downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, banning public health officials from speaking about the disease without clearance.
Medical professionals should be able to speak freely and share information. People should be able to ask questions and debate the merits of measures that governments and companies are taking or could take. Governments should still process requests for information — including Freedom of Information Act requests — as usual, and freedom of press should be protected at all costs. If anything, this crisis requires the government to be more transparent than usual, not less.
A technical bug caused Facebook to censor legitimate news about the spread of this dangerous virus. Twitter is saying it will censor misinformation about the virus, without transparently saying how it will identify information as false. Clearly we need to address the spread of online misinformation about COVID-19, but that means we need more transparency, not less. Instead of automated moderation — which comes with serious risks — social media platforms should consider a moratorium on artificial amplification to ensure they’re not inadvertently profiting from and accelerating the spread of false information.
It's one thing to encourage people to stay home and close down businesses in order to reduce the reasons for people to gather, but people should still be free to go outside, drive places, and move freely without having to justify their movements to the government. People should not be stopped by police or military officers asking people where they are going, or be forced to get approval just to leave their house. There should not be curfews, checkpoints, or travel restrictions that are not based strictly in medical necessity.
Restrictions like these could actually put people in danger, and marginalized communities will be especially vulnerable to these types of restrictions. People concerned about their immigration status or with other complicating factors could be forced to choose between running out of food, or going out and being stopped by police and potentially being detained. Generally speaking, interactions between law enforcement or military personnel and the public should not be increased, as these interactions could actually lead to the spread of the virus.
President Trump has already invoked the Defense Production Act in order to steer production of medical supplies urgently needed to protect the health care workers whose efforts to combat COVID-19 are saving lives. That's worthwhile. But his Department of Justice has requested that Congress grant the Executive Branch even more sweeping powers, such as the ability to detain people indefinitely without a trial, and to suspend court proceedings in the event of "any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation." None of that will help diagnose or treat people in need of medical care. All of that will instill sick and vulnerable people with fear, implementing authoritarian control in a difficult time when democracy is needed most.
The Coronavirus outbreak is global. There is no medical evidence to support targeting people based on their nationality, ethnicity, or country of origin or enacting policies that discriminate based on religion, immigration status, sexuality, criminal record, or similar factors. People should not be targeted for additional surveillance or monitoring, or be banned from entering another country based on discriminatory criteria. These types of restrictive policies don’t work and might push sick people to avoid getting medical help because they fear repercussions.
There are additional steps governments can take to follow the advice of medical professionals to stop the spread of COVID-19 and actually save lives, without limiting rights. Overcrowding in prisons, youth detention centers, and immigration detention centers creates unsafe conditions that will accelerate the spread of the virus, endangering not just incarcerated people but correctional staff and the general public. Reducing incarceration numbers is a public health imperative. Local governments should put an immediate moratorium on arresting people for all nonviolent crimes, and dismiss all pending cases for nonviolent offenses and lower-level offenses by defendants with no history of violence. Agencies like ICE should immediately cease enforcement operations and release all detainees. Prisoners who remain incarcerated should be provided with adequate healthcare, humane conditions, and soap and cleaning supplies free-of-charge.
We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and our basic human rights. If we allow our government officials and corporate leaders to violate our civil liberties now, it will only empower them to continue violating our human rights under the guise of “security” once this pandemic has passed. Once governments have given themselves new powers, they rarely let them go.
We must protect our human rights and essential freedoms during this crisis. When this is all over and things go “back to normal,” let’s make sure the world is worth living in.