Four fears for authoritarians

“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.

23 thoughts on “Four fears for authoritarians

  1. And what do the Burmese do as soon as they have the chance, now liberated from decades of authoritarian military dictatorship? They take steps to replace the draconian legislation that enabled government surveillance of all online activity. But (just as for ID cards), if privacy advocates point out the authoritarian risk inherent in surveillance legislation, they’re written off as irresponsible nutters from the tin-foil hat brigade.

    1. Thanks – I hadn’t seen that! Burma’s one of my favourite places: I had a cathartic trip there in 1991, and was involved in setting up one of the main political campaigning groups for Burma in the UK.

  2. But this looks just like what is happening right here at home. When I read about spying on it sounds like they want control just as much, and have more means of getting it. Also, they are using these means because it’s easier than finding a fair solution.

  3. Great entry Paul.

    Historically speaking, I am a regular visitor to the UK and I was very upset to see the default filtering of the internet. That this is the “narrow end of the wedge” for a more generic blanket of censorship is completely obvious. Any time someone claims “we must protect the children!” I am immediately suspicious of what follows since it is such a trivial trolling of peoples’ emotions.

    Frankly, I am surprised that intelligence services across the globe seem to think it’s OK to monitor pretty much everything. From the perspective of an outsider, it seems that this pervasive internet surveillance will, in the longer term, lead to a drastic reduction in the demand for staff at intelligence services over time. It’s all fun and games now, but the more automated and computerized it becomes, the less funding and staff can be justified. I would like to think there is some fun in _not_ knowing everything, even if knowing is your business.

    1. “We must protect the children!” is Uk’s equivalent to the US’s “Nothing to Hide” brainwash marketing campaign.

      It’s like Apple’s reviewers regurgitating Apple’s marketing speak and Customers in turn using those same words.

      What can be done?

  4. First of all, there is no fear of us losing control. We have lulled the populace to sleep with booze and mind numbing entertainment. The next step is to bankrupt them, so they will see dying in China (or allowing their chidlren to die in China) as a glorious act. To this end we must control everything they know, and their morals.

    If you think you know about the level of surveillance you’re under, you’re deluded. We let those leaks happen, both to divide the public against itself, and to make the public think that’s the extent of our surveillance.

    Snowden is still on our payroll.

  5. I, like you, have always viewed the push for increased surveillance as a push for control. Whether it is control of the streets (through cameras) or control of the internet (through data retention and analysis). However, I am not sure I believe that the current western governments have totalitarian ambitions but instead are driven to a large extent by their own personal ambitions or due to loyalty to their country. In a democracy, politicians can be held accountable for the actions of others and the best way for politicians to minimize the effects of these actions is to try and control them.

    The media should realize that they also contribute to this problem by sensationalizing news stories that drive the need “to do something” on issues that in reality have little affect on their people’s lives or are low probability events that occur due to chance.

    1. No sir. If something can be abused, it will be abused. Unless there’s check and balance, the surveillance capability there’s building will be used (not in this generation but thee next) for (totalitarian) oppressive government.

  6. Paul,
    I enjoy reading your clear prose and insights into the issues. I am still puzzled by what you mean by control and to what end? To an extent, we consent to that control by the social contract we have with the government. The government is legitimate to the extent it follows our consent and does not endanger us. What does that mean? We obey the laws that we consented to be made. For example, we drive within the speed limit. This controls us. We are not allowed to marry our sisters, the law forbids this. We cannot drink or marry before a certain age. The pub cannot sell alcohol after a certain time.

    In that sense, the government controls us because we want it to “control” us by setting the boundaries by which we and others are safe and are able to go about or personal business.

    If you are saying control is different from government, please explain. As I understand your post, your argument is that the control moves beyond government. Yet, is surveillance any different from a police officer walking the street but this time walking the electronic beat? How is it different from needing a passport to travel, or having to register a birth, a death or a marriage? All of these exert a form of control and the state’s involvement in the person’s life. Moreover, the state has over 200 different laws that allow it to enter our property. Yet, we accept these because they are done for the public good as decided by the democratic political process which allows our voice to be heard the judgement of our representatives to be held accountable based on their public statements that contribute to how the law is made.

    If what you said were true, which could apply in North Korea or Burma, there would be no libraries, and there would be no schools and no internet. Yet, the government in the West does the opposite. It builds schools, funds libraries, funds scholars, it encourages reading and it makes money available for the arts. Moreover, the government is incredibly tolerant of criticism and non-violent dissent. Moreover, it is a limited government, in which the laws apply equally to the government (though not the Queen) as it does the citizen. Perhaps it is because there are so few taboos left and so few limits to what can be done that we rail against the final vestiges of the illusion that we are constrained.

    Thanks again for a stimulating post.

    1. Sorry not to have time to reply properly, but does government have to be primarily about control? In the US pledge of allegiance, ‘liberty and justice’ are emphasised: control is about a reduction of liberty, isn’t it?

      And, to take one of your analogies, this isn’t like a policeman walking the beat, agreed and understood and supported by the community. It’s like an invisible secret policeman peering into our bedrooms and taking books from our shelves and burning them. This isn’t with transparency or consent – it’s through deception and artifice.

      More later, I hope!

      1. I think guys like that need a trip to Nigeria where people do not know their rights. Or at least their rights don’t count. US, Uk, they’re catching up to African countries.

        A spider does not get caught in its own webs. Back in Nigeria, we say this: When a thief crafts a law, he cannot not be convicted by it.

        Recent revealed actions show that these govt will:
        1. Be above the law
        2. Twist laws for their own benefits
        3. Effectively Squelch any dissent before it grows and spreads
        4. Admitting guilt and cooperating (unconditionally) with law enforcement would be better than trying to fight or argue about rights.
        5. Law enforcers would dictate what is said through the press (like china)

        it’s unfortunate but nice guys like Mr Lawrence finish last. Government operates on the credo “guilty until proven innocent.” By the time he realizes it, he’ll be in heaven (or somewhere else) while his children suffer the consequences of his gullibility in willingly relinquishing control to the government.

        The most important to consider is UNDERSTANDING. People used to be swindled by insurance companies and banks with complex technical words in contracts. Therefore, US govt mandated easily read insurance, bank contracts. They did this cos people tune out or won’t pay attention when they don’t understand a thing.

        If they don’t pay attention, they won’t know what to challenge. If i don’t understand the law or laws that affect me, then any interpretation someone (from the government) shoots at me, is what i’ll accept.

        I’ve written too much. God help us to help ourselves before it’s too late.

      2. Thanks for the quick comment. First, liberty and justice both require a government. Without government we return to a state of nature in which the powerful rule rather than justice. We return to the start of Plato’s republic.
        Surveillance has been around forever. In the US, so far as I can read, no one has alleged that any of the programs that were uncovered were without legal authority or without congressional knowledge and oversight. If there has been such a program, please sen me the link.
        I think you will find it is with consent as you want to be safe from attacks and threats of attacks. The government spends a larger amount of time tracking and following gangsters than it does on the internet. It also spends more time using electronic surveillance, covert sources, and eavesdropping devices, as well as intercepting their telephonic communication than it does searching the internet. Look at the RIPA authorisations and their use. We consent to that and we want it because we want gangsters and others to obey the law. We want justice.
        So far no one has shown that the surveillance has been used in illegitimate ways ie beyond the provenance provided by their terms of reference or the reasons for their use.
        In the United States the 2000 mistakes reported by the NSA internal audit sound like a system that is monitored regularly and tracked. Again, I do not see how the surveillance has turned into control. The argument makes a cognitive leap that is not supported by the evidence. If new evidence emerges that shows Bush or Obama was using this to influence elections or political decisions, which is a huge no-no, following Watergate, then we would be in an area of impeachment and a constitutional crisis. I seriously doubt that we are in that territory.
        Finally, the question that has to be answered is what area does a state not have some involvement either by regulation or by law in a person’s physical life? We want that involvement for any number of reasons most of which because we want to have a better life as suggested by liberalism. Is life better off for most people now than it was 100 years ago or even 50 years ago because of or in spite of the government?

        Thanks for the challenging response.

      3. Again, I fear you’re far too trusting of your own politicians – both in terms of their trustworthiness and in their ability to avoid being duped… but that’s all I can say for now! It’s late….

  7. > 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.
    this is what happened indeed in Iran. first, they employed filters to censor porn. then for censoring political opposition. now, for most of things.

    1. Exactly so. Once the infrastructure is in place, politically motivated censorship will follow as surely as night follows day.

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