We are living in an interesting time. A time where the strong moral bastions of freedom, free speech and civil liberties are under attack in such a strong, aggressive and global manner , arguably unseen for almost 70 years in affluent western nations.
As children of a time of strong political stability, relative peace and strong civil rights in somewhat liberal western nations, we are facing our first real crisis of the ideologies we have been told to cherish.
For decades we have been told that western democracy and capitalist system, whilst not perfect, is the only system providing true freedom and civil rights and that it’s our place in the world to distribute these freedoms to those in less fortunate circumstances.
But nothing good lasts for ever, societies change, either evolving onwards or collapsing in on themselves, quickly at catastrophically or slowly tearing away at themselves from the inside, until they become the very society that we tried to protect ourselves from in the first place.
Our perfect freedom-loving governments are now implementing legal and illegal methods to spy on their own citizens, detain journalists at airports and destroy hard drives to try and silence the free press, hold average citizens at border security for interrogation, scan private computers, impact the free travel of leaders of other countries, pursue their own whistleblowing citizens across the world for revealing violations of their own country’s most sacred laws, or even imprison them for 35 years for upholding our most important beliefs.
Even my homeland of New Zealand, generally very politically stable and with a liberal representative democracy is suffering, with legalisation being passed to allow spying on our citizens and the government is pushing for additional legalisation to force telecommunications providers to provide encryption technologies which are backdoored and decryptable by the New Zealand government- and undoubtedly, their NSA allies.
We’re discovering that despite electing our own representatives and laws, treaties with so-called allies are being used to push their own laws and ideologies and overriding the voice of our own people.
In many cases, we are architects of own demise, by being agnostic and ignoring the issues because they “don’t impact us”, voting people into power who don’t truly represent our interests and becoming so focused on personal politics, that we vote for our leaders based on how good the cover of the book is, rather than the much more worthy message inside.
From time to time, I’m accused of being a pessimist – surely it’s not all as dire as I make it out to be? I wish I was just a pessimist – I’m actually more of a realist, someone who examine the evidence in front of me and constructs a view based on what the most realistic possibility is likely to be.
Because life is about planning for the worst case outcomes. When you build a computer system you always try to think and plan for the different ways that it will fail. When you build a dam or a building, you consider the worst possible assaults that your structure will ever face, because it just could happen. No engineer closes their eyes to the obvious of the world – unless they don’t wish to be an engineer for that much longer. They design the safeguards needed and warn strongly when there is a risk of failure.
In some ways, I think this is the fundamental difference between the two extreme philosophies of the internet freedom and privacy debates.
A major group of people accept (and some even actively support) any means/measure by a government to monitor and intercept communications for the good of society; whilst the other opposes it just as strongly for the exact same strong moral concerns for society.
The former group that accepts filtering, surveillance and monitoring are optimists, assuming that the system of governance and restraint works, where the systems are only used for good and moral reasons to catch those who seek to harm society and it’s citizens. These optimists can’t understand how anyone could be against these measures to protect us – after all, how can we possibly not see the good these measures will bring? How can the ignorant and paranoid not see the good these laws and restrictions will bring?
By comparison, the more realistic amongst us evaluate the impact that such measures can make, and come to the only logical conclusion – that the creation of a society where the government is accepted to have a high degree of control and visibility of our communications and technology will lead to the creation of a policitical and technological system, that will at some point, eventually be abused.
No matter how good the intention is originally, if the capability is in there for abuse of the system, sooner or later someone will subvert it for malicious means.
The introduction of internet filters are an interesting example. Such technology can be used for a good, moral cause such as trying to attack and reduce the horrifying crime of child abuse images. But at the same time it could easily be used by a malicious government to censor sensitive information – maybe a leaked document, or a political movement rivalling their ideologies.
Some people will argue that internet filtering is a good thing and that the risk of abuse is low – but a realist can only see that there is the risk for abuse of the system and that it will be abused – sooner or later, it happens.
I advocate that the only way to protect ourselves against such systems being used as a weapon is to avoid building such systems. Given a new bomb, a nation will sooner or later decide to use it, because an ends can always be found to justify the means.
It’s an interesting (and infuriating) split in philosophy and one that I don’t think is possible to ever affect on a large scale – not that we shouldn’t continue to try and help people see this point of view, there are still many fence sitters who remain undecided or only mildly concerned.
Of course the issue is now far larger than just internet filtering and censorship – we are now looking at global-scale interception of private civilian communications and private data that are already occurring today.
And the worst case is truly horrifying, we are giving over complete control to intercept, profile and track people and their communications. A malicious government will be able to track it’s population and determine who is advocating against it. Citizens could be blackmailed and controlled by using their data and communications. Protest groups can be spied on by those who disagree with their cause. A government could round up and arrest people who violate their current policies.
I strongly believe in Blackstone’s Formulation, which is the idea that it’s better for the guilty to go free, than for the innocent to be convicted, more so I believe that there has to be a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
These surveillance and profiling systems violate this idea and treats citizens as being guilty criminals who have lost their rights to privacy, lost their right to freedom and really, lost the ability to even define themselves as humanity still.
My personal concerns about the potential of abuse of freedom and loss of an individual’s control due to actions by malicious controlling parties has been one of the defining beliefs that attracted me to the free and open source software movements. Loss of control over our computer systems puts us at the mercy of those who manage the control. But even more than a software movement, I found an ideology that can be applied across all manner of different areas of life.
Openness of laws is vital, all citizens have to be able to read and understand our legalisation if required. Our courts need to be open so we can observe and ensure justice is done fairly. Everyone deserves a voice into our laws and should be able to suggest changes.
I consider myself a member of the internet generation, born into a time when freedom still existed, when any information could be found online, when any message could be sent to a friend without interception and use of it against me.
I don’t ever want to go backwards from this time – society needs to keep moving forwards towards more openness, more freedom and casting off the remaining shackles of our deprecated past of controls and mistrust.
And so I must declare my manifesto, that I will do whatever I can do ensure that our free society remains so, that our communications remain free and private and that governments can not impose undue influence on our lives. Whether this is the case of picking up arms in a 21st century sense by building strong system and applications around cryptographic technologies, contributing to the free/open software movement or just helping awareness and spreading information, I’ll do my best to keep pushing this philosophy.
Because most of all, in 10, 20, 30 years time I never want to be asked “where were you when they closed down the free internet?”.