Paradoxically, some of the greatest forces for liberty often provide the opportunity for substantial infringements of our rights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the ubiquitous internet. The ‘web’ is recognised as the most powerful and comprehensive source of information, the most varied source of entertainment and the most versatile means of communication. This year, Wikipedia has over 2.8 million articles; all submitted and edited by the general public. Google has around 30 billion webpages indexed. What is unique about the internet then is the amount of information it makes available, instantaneously and for free. Whilst critics have pointed out that much of the material on the internet is misleading, surely the internet is the ultimate example of John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas: the multiplicity of information ensures that a consensus emerges around what is correct and objective.
However, it is the volume and nature of this data, particularly that generated from communication, that provides the opportunity for our right to privacy to be infringed. Whilst we can exercise our consumer sovereignty to force private companies to take reasonable steps to protect our privacy, we have no choice but to accept the intrusion into our privacy of the ‘dead hand’ of the Government. This crucial difference is exemplified by the fact that Facebook was recently forced to back-down over its new Terms of Service, as many users felt that they did not provide sufficient safeguards for their content, with particular concerns about it being stored indefinitely even after the user had left the service. Meanwhile, the Government is sticking to its draconian plans to store all emails and text messages under the remit of GCHQ, despite widespread public opposition. Ostensibly, the purpose is to help identify and convict terrorists and other criminals, but this dystopian scheme is too great a price to pay. Furthermore, it seems impractical to trawl through the vast amount of data we would collectively generate.
In conclusion, the more governments portray the Internet as a modern-day “Wild West", the more they will seek to regulate and scrutinise our use of it. Whilst I fully accept that some monitoring of specific users to prevent and solve criminal activity is inevitable, any blanket method that gathers user data indiscriminately is a huge infringement of our civil liberties, and one that seems to contravene the principle of “innocent till proven guilty".
The Internet is written by James Freeland, winner of The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.