“It will not be me,” people say.
Of course. Most people are not criminals, after all. The worst many people do online is post stupid comments when they are drunk and masturbate to porn when they think no one is watching. When the UK government said it wants to take away the passports of wannabe jihadis, why should people care? The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, marks the bloody end of Britain’s version of identity politics. With more British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State than serving in the British armed forces, the least the nation can do is make amends to a bleeding world by stopping Muslim radicals leaving to murder, enslave and rape. In any case, the general public is not going to Syria, is it?
It is also unlikely that the state’s ban on so-called “hate preachers” visiting universities alarms people either. Students and college administrators have barred just about everyone with controversial opinions. The London School of Economics and the University of West London have even harassed and barred secularists who wanted to expose theocrats who were proselytizing against women, Jews and gay people on campuses. Some people told the universities that if they did not defend freedom of speech, the state would remove their freedom. They did not listen and now it has gone. Serves the fools right.
Illustration: Mountain People
British Home Secretary Theresa May’s order that Internet and mobile communications companies allow police to identify who was using a device and when probably fails to stir others too. Essential clues for 21st-century crime fighters, one could say. Better to help police catch dangerous people than to let them escape justice.
However, what the British Home Office is doing is not as troubling as what it wants to do.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has lost count of the number of times he has had to intervene to stop the security establishment crushing basic liberties. The Liberal Democratic Party blocked police and intelligence services from having access to everyone’s Web histories. They stopped law enforcement agencies from inserting “black boxes” to intercept Web traffic.
Most importantly, legislators blocked May’s astonishingly illiberal “extremism prevention orders,” which would have allowed the state to censor opinion — rather than prevent crime — by blocking speakers who are not inciting violence or breaking the law.
Despite these wins , people should feel uneasy. The Liberal Democrats could be gone within six months. The Conservative Party might have a majority, or the Labour Party might, instead. As the record of the previous Labour government suggests that Labour politician and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper would make May look like the leader of the Brownie pack, the odds are that all of the authoritarian measures Clegg and his colleagues blocked will return.
The Home Office never forgets a bad idea; it never gives up. After Clegg blocked the extremism prevention orders, the government’s extremism task force met. Liberal Democratic ministers noticed that officials had put the orders right back on the forthcoming business agenda.
One way or another, it wants police surveillance of everyone’s Web and mobile records and the elimination of unpleasant opinions. If that does not bother people, then people are fools.
Friends who helped break revelations by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the agency’s clandestine surveillance are close to despair. The British, who survived two World Wars, the Cold War and Irish Republican Army bombs appear willing to tear up their civil liberties because of Muslim murderers. The electorate greeted the Guardian’s expose of mass surveillance with indifference. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives feels public pressure to reform the secret state.
The standard reply to the public’s belief that: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” is to ask: “So, you do not draw your curtains then?”
A better warning against unconstrained state surveillance comes from online experiences. Malice and mob-like rage drive the Twitter storms that erupt more often than UK autumn rains.
A left-wing cooking writer uses British Prime Minister David Cameron’s dead son to attack the leader. However, instead of accepting that everyone has said vile things in their lives, Conservatives scream that she is lesbian and campaign for Sainsbury’s to stop employing her as a celebrity chef.
Television personality Myleene Klass humiliates Labour Party leader Ed Miliband on television. Instead of trying to beat a D-list celebrity in an argument — which if you are unable to do so, you should give up on arguing — leftists demand that UK retailer Littlewoods stop using her as a model and selling her range of designer dresses.
The same people who scream “censorship” and “persecution” when one of their own is targeted lead the slobbering pack when the chance comes to censor and persecute their enemies. They want others fined, punished and sacked, and never pause for a moment to consider their dizzying double standards or reflect that the weapons they use might one day be turned on them.
Nearly every adult and many a bullied and mocked schoolchild has already changed their behavior for fear of online spies, and not only because of the venom on Twitter. Employers examine Facebook pages before they hire staff. A politically incorrect post can lead to a sacking or demotion. Online anonymity always strikes me as cowardice until I reflect that millions of people are so frightened of capricious employers they dare not speak freely under their own name.
Given the chance, the authoritarian political class would ape the authoritarian managerial elite and be just as malicious as the Twitter heresy hunters.
A Dorset borough council that used surveillance powers designed to catch gangsters and terrorists to spy on a mother who was trying to get her child into a decent school is a symbol of our times. However outrageous and ham-fisted its behavior was, the authorities could say that parents are breaking the rules if they game the school system. The police would make the same argument once they have the freedom to roam the Web. They would say they have a duty to collect evidence of any crime, however minor. They would do it because they can.
The most telling omission from the government’s push toward a surveillance state is the absence of safeguards. The Liberal Democrats have forced it to establish the Independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to act as a counterweight to the overwhelming authoritarian advice coming from the Home Office. However, that is set to go when the Liberal Democrats leave power and then, well, people would need a childlike trust in our leaders to sustain them.
“It will not be me,” I hear people say.
However, those who tweet anonymously, or cower before online bullies, or watch what they write for fear of their employers, must know that it already is.
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