Good hello to you. I’m speaking today from the blazing terraces of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. I’m also speaking to you from Riga in Latvia, the closed city of Baikonur in Siberia, Uranium City in Canada, Vienna, Kiev and Amsterdam.
Of course I’m in none of those places. No, I’m sitting in the downy comfort of my home in [REDACTED], sipping a cup of tea and congratulating myself on a great opening paragraph. I’m using a proxy to write about something I’ve been turning over in my head for some time now. It’s been worrying me, and of course it’s been worrying you, gentle denizen of the internet. But be not afraid.
I’m talking about the worrying increase in internet security that’s been on the cards in recent months. It’s no shock that, in the wake of Edward Snowdon’s revelations of NSA and CIA surveillance of innocent citizens, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four went up by 700%. We are living in dark times. Ingsoc times.
Of course it’s our fault really. This whole show got started in the early years of Century 21, when we were so convinced that bad men in turbans posed a threat to our national security that we were more than happy for anyone to save us. The Powers That Were thought it would be a jolly good idea to suspend trifling legislation that guaranteed our personal freedoms…you know, stuff like habeas corpus and double jeopardy. We were so busy playing Farmville and instagramming our xBoxes that we didn’t really notice. Law is boring, right? Retweet for a follow.
The suspension of basic civil liberties in public – the right to move unmolested, the right to public protest without consent, the right not to be surveyed without a warrant, the right to voice an opinion – were suspended as a necessary precaution against domestic terrorism. Mutatis mutandis, when that threat was eradicated our rights would be restored, right? Don’t be silly. That kind of talk is unpatriotic.
In all seriousness, a progressive change in what is meant by “freedom” is the first sign of an incumbent dictatorship. Just as 2+2=5 was correct in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the word “freedom” has shifted from meaning “doing basically whatever you want” to “doing whatever we say you can do”. As an old-school Liberal, I find this deeply disturbing. My political heroes are people like Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights Of Man, and John Stuart Mill, who wrote On Liberty. The great Mill accurately summarized exactly the sorts of times we find ourselves living in:
“Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”
Taking these ideas to heart when I did, at the ripe age of eighteen, the modern world seems a scary and puritannical place. The cost of my cigarettes has gone up 40% in five years because the government doesn’t want me to smoke. Alcohol costs more than it ever did. Fatty foods, salt and other delicate and enjoyable treats have similarly risen in cost as part of initiate after initiate designed to turn us into the people that the government wants us to be: in short, as Mill wrote in 1859, to “compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own”.
These make me mad as hell but there’s nothing you or I can do about them. In the real world the government holds sway – after all, they own the armies, prisons and banks. They have power out there, in the real world. But when they start encroaching on the last true frontier, the internet, that’s when I get really peeved.
You see, The Powers That Be, in their continuing mission to babysit every last human being on earth, have taken it upon themselves to clean up the moral morass that is the internet. This infuriates me almost to distraction. The internet, a vast mass of human interactions, is the last bastion of unfettered freedom that human beings have to themselves. Everything else is legislated.
That means, almost by definition, that the internet is disgusting. I will make no bones about that: the internet is a sickening torrent of filth, ranging from torture porn to Youtube comments. I’m not going to defend the internet by saying it’s a paradise. It’s evil. But it’s a necessary evil. And it’s necessary because it’s so very distinct from the real world. It’s an unreality.
Which is why it’s so significant that it remains uncontrolled. It’s where the world goes to complain about reality. It’s where the world goes to escape reality. The internet is entirely distinct from the world, in that it exists nowhere, and logically can’t be legislated by individual sovereign governments. It has a myriad of problems, true, but most of these problems don’t require anything like the government surveillance and censorship we find ourselves up against. Here are a few of the most common examples of problems with the internet. You’ll notice that most of them involve children, weirdly enough.
Example: My son/daughter killed themselves because of cyber-bullies.
Solution: Bullying, whether physical or verbal, is a serious problem. It has a number of solutions, some more effective than others. Cyber-bullying is solved via the simple expedient of logging off and playing Spider Solitaire until things blow over. Anyone who committed suicide because of what somebody said about them online had bigger problems to begin with.
Example: My son/daughter looks at pornography/disturbing images online!
Solution: Children are naturally curious and widespread access to the internet incurs the risk of seeing something naughty. Consider installing a parental lock on your computer. It takes up to several seconds and Microsoft has made it so simple a mollusc could do it (if you’re using Mac OSX you have problems that I can’t help you with. Personal problems.). Failing that, try being a decent parent and talking to your child, or having your child adopted by people who aren’t terminally useless and take responsibility for their own actions. It’s the kindest way.
Example: My husband admitted he looks at pornography and it ruined our marriage.
Solution: Men like sexual things. Big surprise, huh? Pornography didn’t ruin your marriage. Being a ‘tard did.
Example: I saw something online that offended me.
Unfortunately these complaints drive the government’s idea that the last bastion of freedom should be legislated. This has been worrying me a lot, but I’ve since come to understand something essential about the internet: in matters of freedom, the internet beats government any day of the week.
Consider this: a year and a half ago, a high court ruling in the UK caused five major ISPs to ban the Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing site . Traffic to the Pirate Bay dropped by a minuscule fraction and rebounded. In fact, it’s more popular than ever. It transpired that anyone smart enough to download a torrent could circumvent something as simple as an ISP ban in ten seconds flat. Proxy sites and detailed instructions on avoiding the ban appeared overnight. It’s worth noting that that ban, which took years of legal wrangling, the collusion of five huge companies, the British Government, the high court and several million pounds to achieve was undone by people sitting at home in their pants.
Another great example: in the wake of the whole NSA/CIA/GCHQ furore, this story appeared. The gist: a programmer has developed a plugin that will flag all of your email to the NSA by including scary-sounding gibberish at the end of it. The goal is to create so much white noise that infringement of our freedom by government stooges will become meaningless. If everybody looks like a terrorist, nobody does. Let me put that into context: massive, multi-billion dollar operations involving millions of man-hours, government legislation and back-room deals can be effectively hampered by a few hundred lines of code.
These are my two favourite success stories and they give me hope for the future. I said that I wasn’t afraid any more and it’s because I’ve realized that, in matters of the digital frontier, governments are more or less powerless. They move too slow. In taking on the internet, they automatically take on millions of people, any one of whom can have an idea and develop it. The rate of evolution of technically-minded people outstrips the stodgy,old-fashioned moralists in power. It’s taken the FAA nearly twenty years to admit that mobile phones don’t pose any danger to aircraft. Can you imagine anything online moving that slowly? We are battling dinosaurs for our freedom.
This is how you can contribute to the struggle for freedom. Take precautions. Disguise your identity online. Use a proxy. The how and the wherefore of protecting yourself from your own government is only a google search away. I assume, of course, that you’re not doing anything particularly naughty. Maybe you are. That’s the price we pay for freedom: some people will do things we’re not comfortable with. It is, unfortunately, the flip-side of the coin. But it’s worth it.
Let me reiterate: the goal of freedom is not to collude to commit crimes. It’s not about whether breaking copyright, passing around gross pictures or buying drugs is the legal or moral thing to do. Freedom is the acceptance that each person is responsible for their actions and must do what they consider right and reasonable. Our governments would like us to think that freedom is the right to do whatever they want, which is wrong. If there is any kind of revolt or revolution implied in these actions, it is a revolt against government interference, not in favour of immorality. If, like me, you’re more a citizen of the internet than of a nation, then you belong to the greatest collective ever known – a collective of free, intelligent individuals who resent interference and have the capacity to deflect it.
So: be not afraid.