“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it” Aung San Suu Kyi: Freedom from Fear
Recent events in the UK have been disturbing for believers and supporters of civil liberties. In many ways it feels as though our civil liberties are under a greater, more sustained attack than at any time since the Blair inspired near-paranoia that led to ideas such as the ID card database, the Interception Modernisation Programme (the predecessor of the Snoopers’ Charter) and 42 day detention amongst other hideously illiberal measures. What is perhaps more dangerous is that today’s attacks are in some ways more insidious, more seemingly disconnected, more apparently ‘reasonable’ when considered individually and hence more likely to gain public support – even by those who consider themselves to be very much supporters of human rights. Make no mistake about it, though: they are connected, and inspired by the same sense of fear that inspired Blair, Straw, Blunkett et al. They’re inspired by the same fear that have enveloped authoritarians for centuries: a fear of losing control.
1) Fear of a strong, independent, determined press
An independent press is the scourge of the authoritarian – and authoritarians know it all too well. The powerful have never liked a free press – from the pamphleteers of the 18th century to Tygodnik Solidarność in Communist Poland, an independent, brave and determined press has been crucial to the resistance to oppression. That’s why, regardless of the legality or otherwise of their actions, the Government’s first supervising the smashing of the Guardian’s laptops and then detaining David Miranda should be viewed very seriously indeed. It’s an attempt to stifle, to cow, to intimidate and to control the press. That’s serious. Very serious indeed.
2) Fear that people will learn what they’re doing
Authoritarians everywhere want their own actions, their own methods, their own systems to remain secret. they don’t want the ordinary people to know what they’re doing – partly because when people know what they’re doing, they generally object, partly because the authoritarians know that what they’re doing is in many ways wrong, partly because if people know what’s going on they can take measures against it. Make no bones about it, the Snowden revelations matter – it matters that we know about the level of surveillance that the authorities are performing, and how much they’re lying about it.
3) Fear that people are hiding things from them
The idea that people are hiding their thoughts, their plans, their associations – even their thoughts and dreams – is perhaps the thing that scares authoritarians the most. That’s why they consistently spy on their own citizens, using whatever methods they can find. In Burma, it was estimated that more than 1/3 of the populace was paid to inform the authorities, whilst the Stasi’s use of informants and other spies is now stuff of legend. The current obsession with internet surveillance – both legally, using the Snoopers’ Charter and its equivalents worldwide and ‘quasi-legally’ using the techniques and systems of PRISM, Tempora and so forth – is a reflection of that same fear, that same concern that people are hiding things. It’s an obsession that amounts, ultimately, to a belief that your entire nation, your own populace, is suspicious. We could all be traitors and enemies of the state – so we should all be watched. Orwell understood this – which is why 1984 hits the nerves so closely, and rings so true.
4) Fear that people can learn too much
A knowledgeable populace is a dangerous populace – so a good authoritarian has to control access to information. That’s why books are burned, that’s why censors are employed, that’s why education is closely controlled – and why, in the current technological climate, the internet is considered so dangerous. That, not the fear of pornography, is the key to the current plans to censor the internet. I’m not saying that the likes of Claire Perry think in these terms: I’m quite sure she doesn’t. Her desires for censorship come from another, not wholly unrelated angle: the idea of controlling the morals of the populace. Claire Perry, however, is being used by others who wish to take greater control over what people can learn – control of pornography is in some ways a Trojan Horse, to allow control over everything. Once the filters are built, the terms upon which they can filter can be (indeed will be) modified. It allows control over information – and hence over the populace.
It’s all about control – and the internet
Ultimately, control is the bottom line. All these events, all these actions, are about control. Controlling the press. preventing people learning about government actions, spying on people in their every action, controlling what they can have access to – it’s all about control. These aren’t separate issues: they all interlink, and the internet is the mechanism through which they link. To control the information people have access to online, you need to know what they’re doing online. To control the newspapers, you have to control the internet, because these days that’s how the newspapers distribute their information, far more than by print. That means, amongst other things, controlling twitter – which is why the authorities are getting keener and keener to control twitter, and why they will latch onto every opportunity to do so, whether that be the desire to stop trolling or abuse, or to control for copyright and so forth.
We need to see this bigger picture – and resist this drive for control. Some of the elements may seem eminently reasonable – most notably the porn-filters and the desire to root out abusive tweeters – but we need to understand the bigger picture too. We need to consider slippery slopes – even if that means we get ridiculed as conspiracy theorists. If the Snowden story tells us nothing else, it should tell us that not all conspiracy theorists are wrong. The stakes here are very high indeed – it’s about freedom itself.