So I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed like any respectable college student would in a time of procrastination, and I happened upon a post by one of my friends which ended up really intriguing me. At first, I saw this post and thought to myself that the poster, who will henceforth be referred to as “Orange” in an effort to protect his privacy and prevent my causing a peer-to-peer privacy violation, was just jumping on the bandwagon of those most ardent of defenders of Internet civil liberties. On a site like Facebook, where an accepted, tacit norm is that information and freedom of expression rule, I dismissed this as a “duh” post. Of course the governments cannot use information acquired through monitoring Facebook, I thought. I even dismissed the possibilities that governments had access to private information on Facebook or that they would go through so much trouble to monitor such vasts amount of information.
The post was not all that surprising, and I would have skipped through most of it had I not seen the comment from the person henceforth referred to as “Blue”: “I believe you forfeit that right by agreeing to Facebook’s terms and conditions”. This was certainly intriguing, and has formed the basis for this post. What incentive does Facebook have to deceive its customers and aid in government monitoring? Should government be able to have access to such information?
My answer is no. When the government overly monitors people’s private actions and opinions — broadly construed as modes of expression — it causes people to change their actions in accordance with the norms that the government is effectively imposing. Take one justification for monitoring of social media: to prevent threats. While this sounds like a noble aim in the abstract, giving the government so much license can lead to somewhat arbitrary exertions of power when the law is applied. Meet Jason. Jason posted the following to a private page’s political thread “I wish there was a magic wand to make Senator Santorum disappear.” The result: a police investigation at both his work and his home. While Jason was later found to not be a “threat,” that the police got involved leading to potential workplace embarrassment and a search of his home for possible evidence that Jason would harm Senator Santorum are major warning signs which deter both Jason and those he knows from posting possibly negative comments about political candidates. In this way, government’s action exerts a strong normative force on individuals’ actions.
With the ability to view users’ content and the algorithms to help it flag down activity which potentially violate its norms, the government is rendered omniscient. What are the implications? People have ideas in their minds, and free speech is the notion that, within certain limits, people should have control over which of their minds’ ideas they express to others. Yes, there are limitations on free speech, some of which include those related to potential threats and obscenity, but never before in the history of the world have liberal democracies had so much ability to monitor their citizens. Consider Communist Russia. Not a liberal democracy by any means, but an excellent example of a place where the police came knocking on your door whenever you uttered something that could be construed to be against the state. How was the government able to monitor peoples’ actions so closely? With the help of spies and bribes. At the time (in other words, in the days before the mass information potential of the internet), liberal democracies like the United States were not able and not willing to monitor their citizens so closely. People in those times, just like today, expressed themselves in the real world quite freely, saying much worse than what Jason said on a whole host of topics. Fast forward to today in the age of social media, where the potential of the internet and social media allows a much wider scope and volume of expression than was ever possible, causing most expression to take place in the virtual world. While in the real world, government maintains its laissez-faire attitude toward comments like Jason’s, it is cracking down on everything in the virtual world, particularly because technology makes it so easy to do so. Algorithms are the new spies, code the new Russian secret police.
On the aggregate, governments’ exertion of this power over expression can be translated into other ways in which people live their lives: recall the USSR’s totalitarian control of all modes of living. This control of decisions at the level of the life of a citizenry, effectively termed “biopower,” has the condition of allowing governments to normatively reduce their citizens’ lives by controlling expression (which is indeed the way in which people interact with their world), reducing life to “bare life.” The term suggests its meaning: a life controlled by the state is no life at all.
Think it’s a scary scenario? Something must be done to preserve the internet as an unfettered medium of expression. “oh well. :(” is not good enough to preserve our liberty.