Some thoughts on the right to be heard and mass surveillance

The internet is a magical thing. In days of yore, not everyone could be heard. This was for two reasons: firstly, there was much more conventional censorship. Books of incredible importance were banned or remained unpublished, and newspaper articles that seemed to conflict with the interest of the mogul at the top were struck out with black marker. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there was no means by which the average joe could say his piece. A skilled writer could perhaps have a letter occasionally printed in the local newspaper, but certainly there was no way that a great idea could be heard by the masses if it was not written by the right person. In the West, we take for granted the fact that now, people can basically say what they want, and, if it is interesting or moving or inventive enough, millions will read it. What has happened is that the English language has been democratised. One difference is that now almost everyone in the UK can both read and write. This is secondary, however, to the fact that the person who is heard is not determined by the interests of a newspaper tycoon or the will of a government, but by the number of Facebook shares he/she receives.

What people do not realise is that this huge shift in the way that people can spread information is dangerous to governments, and that for many, it is in their utmost interest to stop it. During the Arab Spring, Egyptians convened not only in Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo, but also on twitter and Facebook. In China, governments have implemented a ‘great firewall of China’, which not only literally censors the things that people write but also breeds feelings of paranoia, where everyone feels as though they are under surveillance, and in turn become more likely to censor themselves. In many countries, governments have at least made some effort to censor their people. In Turkey, it is illegal to insult the President, as has rather comically been revealed when Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of The Rings films, was called to testify at the trial of a man who compared President Erdoğan to Gollum.

In the UK, the efforts to censor the people have been less obvious, and have largely been surreptitious. But that does not mean they are not happening. The way it happens is firstly by highlighting real problems in the UK, and falsely claiming that the solutions involve surveillance and censorship. For example, the Paris attacks have been used to quickly usher through the so-called Snooper’s Charter, a bill that mandates Internet Service Providers to keep every single person’s browsing history for twelve months. Some may think that this is a good thing, and that we can trust the government only to look at the data of wrongdoers, as was said by Member of Parliament Richard Graham when he quoted Joseph Goebbels and said, ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’. This argument might hold up if it weren’t for the fact that several times, GCHQ has been found to unlawfully access the data of its people and its organisations, including recently being found to have illegally accessed the data of Amnesty International and the Legal Resources Centre. We don’t know why the government would want to illegally snoop on Civil Liberties charities, but I think we could have a pretty good guess.

This mass surveillance could possibly be justified if it stopped terrorist attacks. You’d think that, given the amount that politicians reel off the numbers of terrorist attacks that have been stopped in the last year or whatever it is, the surveillance systems are hugely successful, and often lead to terrorists being captured. The truth is slightly different. One analysis of the NSA’s spying programme concluded that the surveillance had had ‘no discernable impact’ on preventing attacks. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the U.S. government was quick to leap on the fact that the NSA is keeping Americans safe, and NSA Director Keith Alexander testified that the National Security Agency had prevented 54 attacks. The truth was later revealed that this was a lie, and Alexander eventually admitted that what he had said was untrue.

Surveillance and censorship go hand-in-hand, and often, surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism is the first step in mass censorship. The United Kingdom is lucky to had never experienced dictatorship in the same way as the USSR or Germany, but this leaves Britain particularly vulnerable to a certain naivety about censorship. In the USSR, grandparents tell their grandchildren stories of how they placed pillows over the microphones of their landlines out of fears that they were being listened to by government officials, and how all sense of privacy was eradicated and replaced by total loyalty to the Party. Although Britain is far from the privacy violations of the USSR or the hellish dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four, sleepwalking into a state where privacy is a relic from a bygone era is not impossible, and the current Conservative government have no sympathy for the traditional liberal values of privacy and individual freedom. David Cameron said, “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”. Hardly makes you feel safe to say or think what you want, does it? The internet is a vitally important tool to allow people to say what they want, and to criticise the government when they do wrong. This is why many seek to place limitations on what you can and cannot say online, and also why they must be stopped.