All Commentary
Thursday, June 8, 2017

We Won’t Stop Terror by Sacrificing Internet Privacy

More control is a step on the road towards tyranny, not safety.

Government’s main and possibly only purpose should be the protection of its citizens. We delegate this responsibility to our governments so that we can better use our time to enjoy leisure activities and civilized pursuits not associated with law enforcement and security protection. When a government no longer provides that security and stability for its citizens, they rarely exist much past that point.

How much of our freedom do we relinquish to secure our cities and our way of life?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Many interpretations of this quote exist in relation to the current state of radical Islamic terrorism plaguing many countries throughout the world. How much of our freedom do we relinquish to secure our cities and our way of life?

Massive Online Monitoring

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor of Lawfare, was interviewed a few years ago by Robert Siegel of NPR, stating that Franklin’s quote was misunderstood in the context of a changing landscape of threats and the digital revolution. He states,

It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it’s almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.”

Considering the most recent terror attack in London, which left 7 people dead and 50+ people injured thus far, English Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a massive uptick in online monitoring of social media accounts, among other measures, to monitor communication channels in hopes of locating and preventing terror attacks.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed – yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide,” Ms. May said. But what does that mean?

Charles Arthur at The Guardian and Andrew Griffin at The Independent make a case for the exact opposite intent occurring from drastic measures that Ms. May is proposing.

The Internet is not a cause of this hatred and violence.

“If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe,” wrote Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, “But we should not be distracted: the Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused. While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the Internet are not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming.”

This is precisely the point.

The Internet Is Just a Tool

The internet is not some animate being that aids or promotes terrorism. Facebook and Twitter don’t wake up in the morning and, over tea, decide to aid radical Islamic terror. Would we blame an ax for the crime committed with it and ban all axes from society? The logging industry just might have something to say about that. Likewise, with any tool, it is sheer foolishness to think that the regulation of its use will lead to reduced crime if we do not deal with the true root and cause of the crimes themselves.

But this is not surprising from governments today that have a basic disregard for human freedoms. Out of control regulation and legislation in almost every area of life is commonplace. In fact, a case could be made that any area of life not regulated in some way by government presents a threat to the foundations of their existence.

More control is a step on the road towards tyranny, not more freedom.

What relevancy would a nation-state have in your life if they removed regulation and allowed you to make free choices as you saw fit, rather than from a limited number of choices they have already pre-approved?

Impacts from Ms. May’s action could be numerous with unintended consequences becoming manifold overnight. Would it not make more sense to allow more freedoms on the internet so that radical ideologies could be exposed, challenged and potentially marginalized or their believers’ ideas changed? More control of public discourse is a step on the road towards tyranny, not more freedom.

Franklin may not have envisioned the internet existing, but his Pennsylvania Gazette was instrumental in overthrowing an oppressive regime that was enforcing its ideology on the colonies. British and American tradition is one of a metered response and the openness of discourse. Ms. May’s actions exhibit neither.

So What Do We Do?

The question becomes then, how do we combat terror. Is there a solution? Many have been batted around by western governments. U.S. President Donald Trump wants to effectively reduce travel from hotspot terror countries. Ms. May wants to regulate the internet. Angela Merkel believes that an openness of travel and a presentation of the superiority of western ideals will win the day.

Should we pay the price for their mistakes in the confiscation of our rights to privacy and liberty?

The solution to the problem of Islamic extremism will potentially be much more complicated than those, but not one that we should have to sacrifice our freedoms for, both to those who would take it away by committing acts of terror and to those who purport to know best how to keep us safe.

In 1776, regular colonial citizens recognized that there was an ideological difference between British and Colonial rule. They took up arms to defend themselves because their governments at the time would not or could not keep them safe any longer. The same is happening in Western Europe and will most likely begin to happen in the U.S. soon. How long will it be before ordinary citizens will take up arms to prevent terror when their governments see only the removal of privacy, rights and freedoms as the solutions to a crisis?

Friedrich Hayek in his book, The Road to Serfdom, writes extensively on the necessity of individual rights and government’s interest in removing those rights. He writes,

It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now  –  independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors  –  are essentially those on which the of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good.”

Much can be said about how western powers have aided the rise of radical extremism through interventionist and botched interventionist policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Should we also pay the price for their mistakes in the confiscation of our rights to privacy and liberty? The people of Europe will have to make that hard choice.

In the coming weeks, months and years we will also need to make hard choices about how to combat terror. What is true for now is that our governments cannot protect us sufficiently from radical Islamic terror and the problem seems to be worsening.

One item I do agree with Ms. May on is that enough is enough. It’s about time we named our enemy and found ways to curb his ability to contribute to the destruction of our way of life. No one should have to live in fear of gangs of ideologically motivated men killing using vehicles, knives or bombs. These are marks of chaos and anarchy, not stability and freedom. Perhaps if we addressed the real cause of the problem we could take one step back towards a prosperous and open society.

Reprinted from Politics Means Politics.