Nanny State or Force for Good?

Editorial |Author: Phil Davies | February 18, 2010, Thursday // 16:35|  views

If you are lucky enough to be able to buy one of those shiny Italian supercars, you will be offered a short training program on how to drive the vehicle. That's a responsible and reasonable initiative on the part of the manufacturer.

If you then choose to high-tail it down the Hemus highway and get stopped by the police for speeding - that’s your problem, entirely! No one would blame the car maker.

So, what about the internet? Where do we, normal citizens, stand in terms of personal responsibility and freedom? Although its initial application was purely military, the web as we citizens know it was born out of a desire to link people worldwide, to allow us to communicate, to exchange and propagate everything from new scientific ideas to the most miserable personal tirade on an online forum.

The event now known as "9/11" shook, not only the US, but the entire world. In its wake, states increased their security, passed new laws, put restrictive measures of all kinds in place. We, the normal citizens, tended to accept them as a "force for good", even though we grumbled at airport security desks.

However, there seems by now to be an easily discernible trend, even in the staunchest "democracy", to view the citizen as guilty until proven innocent. This is particularly true when we look at the internet.

France is poised to introduce new laws to regulate the internet to a degree that "will allow the state unprecedented control", according to Deutsche Welle.

"For members of the French administration, it is a law against digital crime. For civil rights activists and politicians from opposition parties, it is a plan for censorship that excites fear and loathing - and even conjures up the specter of Big Brother and the surveillance state," DW writes.

The draft law will demand, for example, that internet service providers (ISPs) should close down "unsuitable" banned sites - banned by whom, and on what grounds? - and monitor and report on users' activities.

All this is being promoted as a social benefit. But - accuse me of living a sheltered life if you wish -are not the vast majority of internet users completely innocent, even naive, in their use of the internet?

Do we - the generally law-abiding citizens - know how to hack a web site, work a subversive spam network, access the state bank and siphon away millions? No.

Do we indulge in verbal abuse of people in a way that could be construed as libel, do we send our friends emailed instructions for making bombs, do we advocate a worldwide revolution? No.

So, why do our governments now regard us as potential enemies of the state? Why is France embarking on extreme surveillance and censorship of its citizens? Why does Germany already have such laws in place (though, it has to be admitted, they are not - yet - being applied, because of human rights concerns). Why does Britain have access to everyone's electronic communications? Why did Bulgaria consider the so-called "interface project" in the first place, whereby the state would gain unlimited access to citizens' electronic communications, including the internet?

Whereas states like China and North Korea are known to be hugely restrictive on their citizens' right to electronic expression, it seems that our much-lauded democratic institutions are not much better - they just don't trust their own people.

And, whereas most of us would agree there are loads of illegal, indecent, subversive internet sites online, shouldn't they be the ones to be targeted directly? Why should the providers become responsible for the traffic they carry? Why should we all be spied on, just to trap the tiny minority of law-breakers?

It was all too easy to believe that the World Wide Web would usher in an age of true democratic freedom of expression to all who could afford it. It took governments some time to catch up with the communications revolution that was happening beneath their long noses. That was a short-lived golden age! Now, they have woken up - they finally realized their citizens were not necessarily subjects, and they didn’t like it.

And, they are hitting their citizens hard - the blanket approach adopted by so many countries means we are all viewed as potentially guilty, and any basic presumption of innocence has flown out of the window.

The current French proposals even allow police and security forces to use clandestinely installed software, or "Trojan horses", to spy on private computers. So, we are now in the position of observing the state, which we may have thought existed to look after our civic welfare, overtly permitted to use illegal tactics to monitor our electronic lives.

Our dignity is gone. Our privacy is dead. We are all hostages of terrorism - not on the part of Al Qaeda, not by the Taliban, not by Hamas - but by our own elected governments.

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Tags: state surveillance, Trojan horse, electronic communication, human rights, Internet, terrorism


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