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The following essay is a response to Trebor Shulz’s article entitled “Points of Control.” It was written in December 2011 as part of a undergraduate college course assignment.
In his article “Points of Control,” Trebor Scholz discusses the modern-day issue of individual freedom of speech and the right to internet privacy; versus national security and potential “cyber-terrorism.” As internet technology continues to rapidly evolve, social networking sites have proven to be instrumental not just in social interaction patterns but as an arena of political activism, awareness, and diversity. In theory, the internet has the potential to protect the user’s identity, which can be important in societies whose leaders wish to maintain absolute control over the exchange of information and communication lines.
Scholz cites examples of the governments in states such as China and Burma, who have done everything in their power to curb the flow of dissident discussion on the internet, as well as implement punishment for those whose identities they are able to discern. For example, China not only censors internet sites by blocking access to those they disapprove of; but the government also pays individuals to continuously post positive blog entries, etc., in hopes of “drowning out” the voices of dissent. The leadership of Burma took it even further when civil unrest arose in 2007: they shut down the entire country’s internet!
Unfortunately, the issue of internet surveillance and censorship is not limited to “developing” nations. Freedom of speech and privacy versus “safety” for the nation has long been an issue in the United States [Scholz cites examples such as the Civil War, when abolitionist material was prevented from being mailed, and the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy Era]. Related to the issue of internet censorship is a more recently developed issue, that of maintaining one’s privacy on the internet; big corporations are continuously collaborating with the U.S. government to develop “fusion centers,” which observe and analyze everything from an individual’s credit card purchase history to a list of articles they have accessed online. What makes people especially uncomfortable about this practice is its unapologetic lack of transparency: citizens under the observation of these fusion centers [or any similar program] are not only denied access to the nature of information being gathered on them, but may not even be granted an acknowledgement that they are under surveillance [internet or otherwise] in the first place. To many, this type of practice clearly violates personal freedoms and protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
The U.S. government has made claims that programs such as those utilized by fusion centers are important for national security, because they help weed out potential terrorists, hackers, and other trouble makers. By closely monitoring someone’s internet activity, you could, theoretically, become alerted if they were to establish communication with an overseas terrorist cell, or try to make a massive online purchase of hazardous materials. But what is the likelihood of this actually happening? Where do we draw the line between someone being a valid “threat,” and someone who is simply voicing views or facts that make the government uncomfortable? Isn’t it hypocritical to decry the censorship of regimes such as Iran or China’s, while simultaneously implementing similar programs here in the U.S.? Scholz also points out that the relatively new fusion center programs have already been the subject of accusations for targeting sub-populations such as Muslims.
It also should be considered that there is huge potential benefit provided to major corporations who participate in the fusion centers, or similar programs. The enormous volume of purchasing data and personal preferences that can be gathered on somebody through internet surveillance could be extremely useful when constructing new marketing schemes, population targeting, and the like. Information of this nature could also potentially be used against the consumer. For example, if a person is being monitored by their healthcare provider, their everyday purchases could be used to calculate whether or not they are placing themselves at “higher risk” through their daily activities, their implying the need for a higher premium. The whole concept could easily turn into a “slippery slope” to extreme manipulation of advertising and markets, exclusively benefitting the corporations, at the obvious expense of the consumer.
I read an article from the Electric Frontier Foundation discussing internet censorship and government retribution against peaceful dissenters. In Thailand, the regime has issued a law that will punish anyone who “likes” a controversial Facebook page with up to fifteen years in prison! The article mentions several other countries where there has been a recent crackdown against online freedom of speech, especially if the person is supportive of peaceful protesting or other forms of political activity. A school in Bahrain fired a tutor for video-taping a protest that took place in his neighborhood and then posting it in YouTube. Similar events have occurred in Vietnam, Burma, Syria, and even the U.K. Censoring internet content is not only a violation of freedom of speech but is harmful to society; the internet allows an incomparable resource for sharing of information and ideas, most of which are NOT about overthrowing the government! The article also discusses a Silicon Valley-based company, Blue Coat, that has been very instrumental in helping the governments of Syria and Myanmar [Burma], among others, implement their programs of internet surveillance and censorship. Overall the article supported all the points made in the Sholz article, while also adding a few new facts to the picture.
I found the Sholz article concise and informative. The concerns he voices are extremely important, and deserve a lot more attention than they are currently being given. It is unclear to me how American citizens are willing to remain so uninformed about the threats to their own personal liberties and rights. I believe that if internet surveillance is allowed to continue in our society unchecked, the results could eventually lead to a situation similar to those in China, etc. Although not discussed in the article, I find it inexcusably ironic that the government would be more eager to censor voices of dissent and peaceful protest, but do nothing to stem the flow of material from actual violent, hate-based groups such as the KKK. As far as the issue of government documents being exposed and published by groups such as Annonymous and WikiLeaks, I believe that for the most part they do NOT pose an actual threat to national security. As discussed in class, it would be dangerous for them to do things like reveal the identities of undercover U.S. agents overseas. However, if, for example, one of these agents was assigned to be part of a covert assassination attempt on a foreign leader, it would be dangerous for this information to NOT be exposed. Americans often discuss the issue of domestic ‘insecurity’ from foreign military aggression. What they fail to acknowledge in this dialogue is the fact that much of the aggression aimed towards the U.S. is the result of our [ sometimes “classified” ] military actions overseas, as well as our hypocritical claim to be truly democratic, while simultaneously violating the rights of our own citizens as well as those of the countries we “liberate.” Basically, if we weren’t so busy carrying out all these imperialistic, “classified operations” in the first place, there would not only be a decreased threat in “secret” information being leaked, but we probably wouldn’t even have the NEED for such a heightened sense of insecurity. The world doesn’t “hate” us for being free: it “hates” us for claiming to be “free” while clearly denying true freedom to both citizens of our own, AND those of states abroad.
Reference: Galperin, Eva and Sutton, Maira. December 6 2011. “This Week in Internet Censorship: activists and bloggers under fire, “cyber security” proposals, and surveillance tech exports”. Electric Frontier Foundation.