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Thoughts on Free Speech and Online Privacy

I’ve been struggling to make up my mind about a number of issues that are currently hot topics in the UK.

On the one hand I’m a fierce proponent of free speech, and have previously defended people’s right to say and write things many of us would find disagreeable, even deplorable.

I don’t think it’s healthy that people get locked up for making bad jokes on Twitter, or saying things that rub some politician the wrong way. Freedom of speech should include the freedom to offend.

But then, on the other hand, I think some elements of the British press have taken their free speech liberties too far and are now actively spreading lies and disinformation in the pursuit of cheap pageviews and circulation figures, without being held to account in any way. The result is a deeply misinformed public serving as the playthings of media moguls that set the tabloid agendas, and the politicians they sponsor.

On top of this, there have been many instances in recent times of this freedom being taken to extreme lengths by individuals as well. Specifically threats of rape and murder via social media sites such as Twitter.

The media’s abuse of free speech (and I truly think tabloids are abusing their right to free speech, instead of treating it with the care it deserves) is currently the purview of the Leveson inquiry and its proposed legislation.

The second type of free speech abuse is, to me, a vulgar breach of the sacred right to speak your mind. That sort of despicable behaviour should be stamped out wherever it occurs.

I welcome debate on controversial issues, and I think insults are an unavoidable part of online discourse (or any form of discourse, really). But when you start to threaten people you don’t agree with, you are simply a catastrophic loser severely lacking in intellectual acumen.

The thing I’m struggling with, though, is how we handle those sorts of threats.

Threatening to hurt another person is already illegal. The problem is that on Twitter and other sites these threats are made anonymously (making the perpetrators even more pathetic, lacking even the most basic courage).

Because they’re anonymous, the law can’t act against them. And so re-emerges the debate about making it less easy for people to be anonymous on the internet, and to allow for stricter tracking of what people do online.

And that, I believe, is not a good thing.

Transparency is not the solution. Transparency will merely succeed in shifting the balance of power to those who own the data. And we, as citizens, will not be the ones owning the data. It will be owned by corporations and governments, and I genuinely don’t trust those organisations to use it for the betterment of mankind.

If you think having your entire life laid bare to big data analysis is perfectly fine as you have nothing to hide, you haven’t been paying attention. (Also, you definitely won’t have read Orwell’s 1984.)

Yet, if we’re to effectively fight against those anonymous cowards who threaten and abuse people online, we will have to sacrifice some of our online privacy.

Is that a worthwhile trade?

Or was Benjamin Franklin right when he wrote that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Is that sort of vile, deplorable hate speech simply the price we have to pay for our freedoms? Is it something we’ll have to accept and live with? Or should we embrace a more totalitarian state so we can stamp out these ‘unwanted elements’?

I think that, by writing this down, I’ve actually started making up my mind at last…

When Justice Becomes a Corporate Lapdog

Recently some alarming facts about justice and imprisonment in the USA have been highlighted. These facts are not new discoveries as such, but worryingly few people know about them.

First there’s this study about wrongful convictions in the USA, which paints a pretty grim picture of the American justice system:

“The US criminal justice system is a broken machine that wrongfully convicts innocent people, sentencing thousands of people to prison or to death for the crimes of others, as a new study reveals. The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have compiled a new National Registry of Exonerations – a database of over 2,000 prisoners exonerated between 1989 and the present day, when DNA evidence has been widely used to clear the names of innocent people convicted of rape and murder.”

The fact that thousands of Americans are jailed for crimes they did not commit is not particularly surprising, if viewed in the larger context of the country’s highly profitable private prison system:

“In the past few decades, changes in sentencing laws and get-tough-on-crime policies have led to an explosion in America’s prison population. Funding this incarceration binge has been an enormous drain on taxpayer dollars, with some states now spending more to lock up their citizens than to provide their children with education. It’s difficult to spin anything positive out of that scenario, but as it turns out, even this blackest of clouds has a silver lining – silver as in dollars, that is, for the private prison industry.

In 2010, two of the largest private prison companies in America, GEO Group, Inc and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) generated over $4bn dollars in profit between them.”

Both these articles are just scratching the surface of this deeply worrying trend in many western democracies to impose ever-stricter sentences on minor crimes, and to utilise the resulting prison population for capitalist gain.

In effect this is a new form of slavery, aimed at imprisoning as many of the lowest echelons of our society in order to use them as involuntary cheap labour. It’s a new way to maximise corporate profits through exploitation of the lower classes, as these will be the most likely to serve extensive prison terms for often minor crimes.

As we all know, rich men can pillage and loot for billions and get away with a slap on the wrist, while the poor serve decades in prison for petty theft. Our justice systems are not blind, we are not treated equally under the law. The more money you have – i.e. the higher your social class – the lower the punishment for your transgressions, if there is any punishment at all.

We see the same unsavoury trends beginning to take shape here in the UK. This form of government-approved corporate slavery is among the worst excesses of capitalist greed, and it should be resisted at every step.

There is a lot I want to write about WikiLeaks and the current scandals surrounding it, but professor John Naughton has done a superb job of capturing nearly all of what I want to say anyway – and much more eloquently than I ever could – in this excellent opinion piece in the Guardian:

Live with the WikiLeakable world or shut down the net. It’s your choice

“On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. ‘Information has never been so free,’ declared Clinton. ‘Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.’

She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had ‘defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.’ Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.”

Please go and read the whole piece. There’s one more thing I want to add to it: The governments under threat here – the USA, Sweden, the UK, and others – are trying to twist and distort the public debate in to one about Julian Assange.

Whatever character flaws Assange might have, it is not his person that should be the focus. Whatever he has or has not done is a side-show, mostly irrelevant to the real issue: we are being lied to on a massive scale. Almost everything we are being told by our elected politicians is a lie.

That is the real issue, and that is exactly what is now being hidden under this mountain of trumped-up scandal reporting on Julian Assange. Don’t let the corporate media shift the debate away from what really matters: not Assange’s sex life, but the lies and distortions we are being spoon-fed by our politicians.

Our freedom and the very foundation of our democratic society are at stake.

I’m not a fan of terrorism. That may sound like a blatantly obvious thing to say, but did you know that terrorism is actually a fairly effective method of achieving a specific goal?

Terrorism gathers mass media attention, highlights the struggle the terrorists are engaged in, and helps recruit new members to the terrorists’ cause.

In Northern Ireland terrorism has succeeded in giving nationalist republicans power in the local government.

Palestinian terrorism has helped paint Israel as a villain and brought impulses to the Middle Eastern peace process.

And now Muslim terrorism seems geared towards accomplishing its own goals: a withdrawal of Western influence in the Middle East.

Counter-terrorism, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to work that well. Decades of counter-terrorist actions from the Israeli Mossad hasn’t lead to a decline in Palestinian terrorism. Only when the Palestine leadership was engaged in peace talks did terrorism decrease.

The same in Northern Ireland: the bombs only stopped going off when IRA representatives were brought to the table for negotiations. (Though there are still plenty of disgruntled IRA-offshoots, one of which recently detonated a bomb about half a mile from where I live.)

Muslim fundamentalist terrorism isn’t declining either. There have been several high profile attacks since 9/11, and the West seems to exist in a perpetual state of fear.

Robert Wright argues in his opinion piece for the New York Times, The Price of Assassination, that counter-terrorist assassinations may actually have the exact opposite effect:

“[Jenna Jordan of the University of Chicago] studied 298 attempts, from 1945 through 2004, to weaken or eliminate terrorist groups through ‘leadership decapitation’ — eliminating people in senior positions.

Her work suggests that decapitation doesn’t lower the life expectancy of the decapitated groups — and, if anything, may have the opposite effect.”

Don’t get me wrong, counter-terrorism is absolutely vital in preventing terrorist attacks. We need our intelligence agencies to go out there to find out what terrorists are planning, and stop them from executing their plans.

But that’s where the mandate of counter-terrorism should end. Preventitive assassination, for all its Hollywood-boosted hype, is not a successful counter-terrorist strategy.

More Reasons to Love Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is one of my heroes. He writes and edits superb books, he verbally destroys stupid people with quintessential Britishness, he loves to drink, and he has quirky hair.

Now we can add another reason to that list: He speaks truth about airplane security (one of my pet peeves). An excerpt:

“For many years after the explosion of the TWA plane over Long Island (a disaster that was later found to have nothing at all to do with international religious nihilism), you could not board an aircraft without being asked whether you had packed your own bags and had them under your control at all times. These two questions are the very ones to which a would-be hijacker or bomber would honestly and logically have to answer “yes.” But answering “yes” to both was a condition of being allowed on the plane! Eventually, that heroic piece of stupidity was dropped as well. But now fresh idiocies are in store. Nothing in your lap during final approach. Do you feel safer? If you were a suicide-killer, would you feel thwarted or deterred?”

Read the full thing here: The truth about airplane security measures (Slate.com)

(Via Unreasonable Faith)

The Privacy Delusion

SEOmoz.org, a site I follow religiously for professional purposes, has published a blog post called ‘24 Hours Without Privacy‘. It describes one young man’s daily activities, and the sheer amount of surveillance and data recording that is taking place behind the scenes.

The total lack of privacy as detailed in this blog post is reminiscent of the Will Smith film “Enemy of the State“, only this time it’s not fiction. This is how we live today. An excerpt:

“Later, after finishing a long day at work, he stops by his local grocery store to pick up a six pack of beer. He goes straight to the back of the store and brings the drink back to the register. Despite his facial hair, the clerk requests to see his ID. He complies and pulls it out of his wallet. The young man keys in his phone number in absence of his grocery store loyalty card so that he can save $0.50. The cash register prints out a receipt and the cashier shoves it in a plastic bag along with the purchase. The man thanks the grocer and continues on his way home.

As soon as he stepped into the grocery store he was picked up by one of about 20 video cameras that continually record shoppers. As he approached the checkout stand he started a three tiered identification process that rivals that of getting a Passport.

The first method was via government ID and was paradoxically the least useful to the grocery store. The cashier ignored his picture and instead focused on typing his birthdate into the register computer as speedily as possible.

Privacy is an illusion. There is very little about you that isn’t known and stored somewhere, permanently, and accessible to parties who most certainly do not have your best interests in mind.

Bits of Freedom resurrected

Good news for digital rights proponents in the Netherlands: Bits of Freedom, the once-defunct digital rights group, has been re-ignited.

New funding from XS4All has enabled BoF to restart the fight and once again oppose online government censorship, corporate lockdowns on online behaviour, and other symptoms of the decreasing freedom of the Internet.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to support BoF financially at this stage, but seeing as how XS4All is the primary sponsor of the organisation it might be a good idea to switch internet providers to them (if you’re not a customer of them already) and let them know your main reason for choosing them is their support of digital freedom.

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Adamus

 Adamus
Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

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