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.

Choose your dystopia…

(See also Choose your dystopia Part 2 – here)

I’ve always been a great fan of dystopian fiction – nightmarish visions of where our society is heading. I started reading them in my teens – well before the year 1984 – and still read them, and watch the various film and TV versions with great interest. So do many people. I do wonder, however, whether our current government has been reading and watching them rather too much – and rather misunderstood the point. In many ways, their recent policies and practices seem to be moving towards making them a reality. The trouble is, they don’t seem to have quite decided which of the dystopian visions they prefer – and may indeed be heading for a mish-mash of them all!


The first and perhaps best known of the dystopian visions the government appears to be emulating is George Orwell’s 1984. Indeed, had the government of Big Brother had the facilities which the government is attempting to bring in with its Communications Data Bill (about which I’ve blogged many times – e.g. here), it would have been ecstatic.

Through the systems envisaged in the Communications Data Bill, the current government can get surveillance of our every action on the internet, our every phone call, our movements (through the geo-location data on our mobile phones), who and what we like, our taste in music, even the books we read if we use Kindles or iPads. It can use this data and the sophisticated profiling techniques developed by the internet industry to develop detailed pictures of pretty much every aspect of our lives. With the Communications Data Bill, Big Brother is more than just watching you….

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was always my ‘favourite’ dystopia – and in lots of ways I suspect his nightmare visions are closer to reality than Orwell’s 1984. It envisages in some ways a ‘softer’, more subtle form of control – a world where consumption is the primary motivation for everything, and where people are directed to consume exactly what they’re told.

The consumerism is something that the current government – and indeed most previous governments in this country – would immediately recognise, but there are other elements which match our government’s vision. The first is the mantra of ‘choice’. In Brave New World, everyone thinks they have choice – to play Electromagnetic Golf or Escalator Squash or Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. Lots of ‘choice’, but all those choices meaningless, and designed to manipulate people into doing what’s to the benefit of the elite. Ring any bells?

There’s another element that might ring some bells: the society in Brave New World is strictly class based – you’re given your class at birth, and that determines everything. Each class is carefully conditioned to know their place, and it’s the Alpha plusses who rule… We may not have sleep-teaching in today’s society  – though Michael Gove might well approve if we did. And when Andrew Mitchell was accused of having told some police officers to know their place, it wasn’t so much the actual words that rang true but the way that they fitted with the image that many people had of the government….

The Trial

Kafka’s The Trial is a very different kind of dystopia, but one that also seems to be having echoes for this current government:

There are many deeply disturbing aspects to The Trial, but the one that has the most direct echoes today is the idea of a secret trial, where no-one really knows what’s happening and why. In liberal societies, justice is supposed not only to be done but to be seen to be done – and due process is supposed to be something that we can follow and we can rely upon – if trials are secret, unaccountable and invisible, that is lost…. and yet that is the essence of some of the proposals currently being put forward by the government in the Justice and Security Bill (see here for a Q&A on it). Mind you, the whole system of ‘justice’ for ‘terror suspects’ of not only this government but its predecessor has had more than a touch of The Trial to it: people detained without charge, without trial, and with the evidence against them kept hidden…


The 1987 movie Robocop (to be remade in 2013/2014) portrayed a nation in financial crisis, people afraid of crime, and the overwhelming spectre of privatisation of police operations.

Most of that scenario fits very well today – with the likes of G4S in the role of OCP. With the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in place, the possibilities for selective ‘outsourcing’ of operations have increased significantly – and the opportunities for the profit motive overwhelming the need to ‘serve’ the public have similarly grown. Those opportunities are what underlie the dystopian nature of the society of Robocop…. and though we don’t (yet) have the technology of Robocop, the growing use of Tasers, of drones and so forth make it not that far from what we have seen.

V for Vendetta

Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, later turned into a film, seems to be the latest dystopian vision aimed for by the government of David Cameron.

His latest vision – to restrict the use of judicial review, because it was ‘wasting time’ and getting in the way of economic growth – would be disturbing enough for anyone interested in due process, in accountability and in justice, but the language and imagery he used is perhaps even more disturbing. It’s in this imagery that the echoes of V for Vendetta come in. Cameron suggested that our current economic crisis is akin to being at war – and that as a consequence we should use similar ’emergency’ powers to those employed during the war.

“Normal rules were circumvented. Convention was thrown out… …Well, this country is in the economic equivalent of war today – and we need the same spirit. We need to forget about crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ – and we need to throw everything we’ve got at winning in this global race.”

It’s exactly this kind of evocation of ‘spirit’ that characterises the government in V for Vendetta – echoing the similar stories in 1984, a state of constant war. Allowing governments to circumvent normal rules, to avoid due process, is very often the start of a slippery slope of the worst possible kind. I might be accused of following Godwin’s Law by suggesting a similarity with pre-war Germany – except for the fact that Cameron himself brought Godwin’s Law into play by mentioning Hitler himself!

Choose your dystopia

All the different elements of the dystopian vision seem to be coming into play together. We’ve got the consumerist, class-controlled society of Brave New World, the ever-present surveillance of 1984, the secret courts and hidden ‘justice’ of The Trial, the privatised and profit driven policing of Robocop, and all wrapped up in the hysterical and hyperbolic rhetoric of V for Vendetta. Which dystopia will Cameron choose? All of them, it seems….

The beginning or the end of cyberlaw?

From time to time I have described myself as a ‘cyberlawyer’. When I’ve done so, I’ve had three kinds of reaction: the positive, the negative and the dumbfounded. Some people find the idea of cyberlaw almost exciting – looking to the future in a kind of William Gibson-esque way. Others look at it with derision – Easterbrook’s comparison of it with the non-existent law of the horse back in 1996 is one that echoes still. Some simply don’t understand what cyberlaw is, or what it might be.

For a long time I’ve taken the side of the first – indeed, my enjoyment of science fiction was certainly part of what led me down the path of cyberlaw – but I’m beginning to think that the other two reactions are perhaps more appropriate – though not necessarily for the reasons that proponents of either argument might have made. It’s not, as Easterbrook suggested, that cyberlaw is too much of a niche subject, nor that ‘cyberspace’ is something only of interest to geeks and nerds. The opposite. Increasingly it seems that almost all lawyers will have to learn cyberlaw – and that almost all people are becoming citizens of cyberspace.

The significance of cyberlaw within the legal community seems to be growing. The first time I went to the cyberlaw section of the Society of Legal Scholars conference, at the LSE in 2008, I sat through sessions with just a handful of other scholars – making even a small seminar room feel empty. This year, at Downing College Cambridge, it was standing room only as pretty much every session was packed beyond the capacity of the room. We had to borrow chairs from other far less popular sessions, and even thought of moving to one of the bigger venues. In other ways, too, cyberlaw seems to be becoming more mainstream. Over the last month or so I’ve been lucky enough to make contributions to two high-quality blogs well outside the realms of cyberspace – most recently writing about web-blocking for the UK Constitutional Law Group blog, and before that writing about the ‘right to be forgotten’ for the excellent INFORRM media law blog. Whilst I would like to pretend that I’ve been asked to make these contributions because of my individual brilliance, I have a feeling it’s much more of a reflection of the way that cyberlaw now impacts upon almost every aspect of law – and not just media and constitutional law.

Media lawyers need to understand the ‘new media’. Constitutional lawyers need to think about the impact of the cross-border nature of the internet on sovereignty, and the way that rights function online. Employment lawyers need to consider how social media impacts upon things like hiring and firing. Commercial lawyers need to understand electronic contracting. Intellectual property lawyers may well spend more time dealing with digital IP than anything else.  Tax lawyers have to grapple with the complex issues of jurisdiction and so forth. Criminal lawyers have to look at how the rules of evidence apply to digital records, and think carefully about the legality of electronic investigatory methods. Human rights lawyers – and I consider my field to be as much human rights as cyberlaw – need to understand both the opportunities for and threats to human rights that arise as a result of the internet. And for each branch of law these are just some of the more obvious and superficial ways in which the digital world has to be taken into account – there are few areas of law where the internet doesn’t have a significant impact.

So what does this mean? Does the increasing importance of cyberlaw mean that we all have to become cyberlawyers – and hence that the whole idea of cyberlaw disappears? Will every lawyer be a cyberlawyer? Ultimately that may be so – but there’s a long way to go before that happens. The law is still finding it hard to come to terms with the internet, for all the efforts of the pioneering cyberlawyers – and the politicians are even further behind, with a few honourable exceptions. There’s also a significant rump of the legal ‘establishment’ that may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world where ‘reality’ and ‘cyberspace’ are increasingly integrated. It’s coming, though, and faster, I suspect, than even people like me imagine.