“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
In the last several days, I’ve had three phone conversations with friends — completely normal people who have their wits about them — during which they have declined to say something for fear of government surveillance. They will be talking normally and suddenly catch themselves and divert the conversation.
The topics we were discussing were mostly innocuous, and I can’t imagine that government interlopers would care, but the impulse to self-censor was triggered anyway.
Free becomes unfree. Fear replaces liberality. Open communication becomes censorship. The curtain is falling fast on free speech. It’s happening all around us, and it is getting worse every day.
The first time I had this happen was about one year ago, when I was talking to a soldier stationed at a military base. He spoke to me almost in code, fully certain that his conversations were being monitored simply because he was speaking from a government facility. The phone was his, but he had the sense, which he probably couldn’t prove, that the lines of communication were not safe.
That genuinely alarmed me. But at the time, I thought it was just because he was at a military base. A bit of paranoia is understandable, and maybe this is just what one would expect. But it turns out that this was just the beginning. The whole country has turned into a military base, and everyone in the know is acting like that soldier did only one year ago.
It’s been true on email too. Increasingly, people are writing in frozen and stiff ways, presuming that someone else is reading. The same has happened in Facebook public postings and online chats. I’ve noticed, just in the last weeks, a reduction in the heat of postings, a fall in the level of zip, a new caution in the mode expression. Across the board, public digital spaces have become chilled.
What a difference one month makes. A leaker from the National Security Agency came forward with a version of events that hardly anyone could believe at first. It seemed outlandish to imagine that the government had a direct pipeline into all our communication portals, mining as much data as possible and building ever larger facilities to gather and hoard it, keeping it around for when it is necessary.
Surely, this man Edward Snowden is just a nut. But in the weeks after his revelations, we all began parsing the statements of denial from the likes of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Verizon. Then it became really apparent that these people were not even allowed by law to tell the truth. They were writing while concealing. They were trying to be forthcoming, but were not free to speak even if they wanted to. They had been ordered not to speak.
But what were they going to do about it? Shut down their businesses? Well, some smaller businesses have shut down rather than comply with the demands that they allow nonstop streaming of data to government headquarters. And get this: Ladar Levison of Lavabit was actually threatened with criminal charges for having shut down his services rather than comply.
Levison had previously complied with specific court orders for information from individuals, but the day he saw a demand for a full-blown “backdoor” to his system, he shut it down. The government then accused him of “violating the court order” for declining to do business. This amounts to a kind of nationalization of his small business — a mandate that he serve the state through his own property or else face prison time.
It’s impossible for me to look at all of these events and not see the most profound irony. I’m a child of the Cold War, a time when the civic morality play pitted the free speech and free thought of the United States against the controlling, censoring, authoritarian wickedness of the communist system operating in the Soviet Union and its satellites. It was a story of good and evil. We were good and they were evil, and the daily fear experienced by the unfortunate citizens of those countries served as the ultimate proof.
I guess I learned the lesson well, because I can’t shake that sense of good and evil from my mind. The United States won the Cold War, but its government gradually came to adopt the very practices that we demonized at that time. Who conquered whom here? Freedom was supposed to have been the victor, but today, Edward Snowden had to be given sanctuary in Russia, of all places, just for having revealed uncomfortable truths about what the U.S. government is doing to its own citizens.
They say it’s all about stopping terrorism. Well, oddly, security is precisely how censorship was justified in the old Soviet days too. The government had to be given access to all communication in order to protect the people from miscreants and enemies within the body politic or else everyone would suffer some terrible fate. To be on the side of free speech was considered an act of treason. So it is today in the great home of freedom.
It’s helpful to consider the bigger picture here. All governments in all times and places have aspired to control the communication of their citizens. In the United States, the government did in fact maintain its control for the greater part of American history. The radio waves were nationalized and controlled. Mail was a government service. The government enforced a strict monopoly over television for decades. Even the telephone system was a government monopoly — handsets and telephone cords were issued and owned by an agent of the state.
In the course of only a few decades, everything unraveled. The telephone monopoly was busted. Cable television was born. Censorship over the radio began to loosen. Then technology took over and there were cellphones, email, private delivery services, chat, hundreds of millions of websites anyone could start, Voice over Internet Protocol, and more forms of communication than government could possibly keep up with. The monopoly over communication that the government once maintained had been completely smashed.
This situation has persisted for about 15 years — a near-anarchist paradise of human sharing and interaction through technological innovation. What’s going on today is really the reaction and response by the elites. They want their power and control back. They are trying to get it through the oldest form of government control surveillance and the blackmail that comes with it. It’s the tactic guards used to control prisoners. It’s the tactic government is using to fight its way back toward having control over our lives.
So as you consider the alarming trends, the first thing to remember is that this approach is nothing new. To surveil the citizens is something governments from the ancient world to the present have aspired to do. It outrages us, and rightly so, but it shouldn’t surprise us.
The chilling effect is intensifying, and serious damage has already befallen the digital spaces we’ve come to love. Over the long run, however, this approach is not going to work. Try as it might, the government will not stop communication innovation. Private entrepreneurs are busy innovating ways to keep the history of our times on the side of human liberty.
The desire to communicate even when government doesn’t want us to is part of the American genetic code. “One if by land, and two if by sea,” says Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s ride to inform citizens about British troop movements. It was encryption in the style of the 18th century. That generation didn’t give up on the freedom to communicate, and neither will we.