The Road to Digital Serfdom

In my previous blog post, I outlined an approach to ending government mass surveillance, suggesting a rights-based means by which government mass surveillance can be ended. In this blog post, I want to write about the slow erosion of rights over time.

What is a right? The answer isn’t simple, and hence I’m not going to waste my time describing the nuances. However, I’m talking about “negative rights”: essentially the right to freedom from governments. This includes such rights as freedom of speech.

There is unfortunately a natural cadence to laws that restrict citizens’ rights: Once rights — insufficiently protected in law — are abused by a government, there is a natural cadence that leads to increased abuses. That is, once the door is opened, one can expect more abuses, and the tide for such abuses becomes stronger and stronger.

With government legislation, it’s rare that legislation is repealed (e.g., “hate speech” laws), rare that nonsensical or failed government programmes are closed down , and rare that governments decrease in size, power, and influence. For digital privacy, this natural cadence of ever increasing government power can only mean more legislation against citizens’ digital privacy and freedom; this cadence can never mean more digital privacy and freedom. This is the road to digital serfdom.

And it doesn’t matter who is in power: left or right. Both sides of the political aisle have repeatedly doubled down on mass surveillance throughout the West. In Australia, both Labor and the Coalition broadly support mass surveillance, and both parties have supported legislation — with very few minor changes suggested to Bills — to further implement mass surveillance. (And, yes, I’m treating the Liberal Party and the National Party as one party, I know.)

Why can politicians pass laws that allow mass surveillance?

  1. There are no mechanisms (i.e., a Bill of Rights) by which politicians are prevented from legislating mass surveillance.
  2. Unfortunately mass surveillance is not a sexy election topic, or even an issue about which most citizens care. That doesn’t mean mass surveillance isn’t important; it means most people care about tangible policies: taxation, economic policies, social issues, etc.

Even if every single piece of mass surveillance legislation were repealed tomorrow, the door would still be open for a politician to begin mass surveillance programs again, most likely after a terrorist incident. This is why mass surveillance — similar to freedom of speech — needs to be protected by a Bill of Rights. In short: Government power needs to be limited.

During an emergency — e.g., wars, pandemics, social upheaval — governments demand more power and control over citizens’ lives. Emergencies provide an enemy against which citizens can unite; suddenly, politicians sense a path to more power through exploiting a rare moment when citizens are united. Emergencies provide citizens with purpose & meaning; political differences and ideologies unexpectedly melt away and are replaced by an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure, whose mere mention provides the shrewd politician with endless opportunities to gain more power.

This is exactly what happened in Australia — and, indeed, the West — after 9/11. In Australia, anti-terror laws were federalised — prior to 2002, anti-terror laws were at the state level — and a bevy of legislation passed for Australians’ “safety”. The federalisation of anti-terror laws brought about two pieces of mass surveillance legislation:

  1. Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015. This Act introduced the requirement for telecommunication companies to keep certain data on Australians for two years. And the Act introduced warrantless metadata access.
  2. Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act. This Acts enables the government to order private companies to weaken their cyber security in order for mass surveillance.

Similar mass surveillance laws were introduced after 9/11 in the US (e.g., the Patriot Act) and the UK (e.g., the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014).

The natural cadence for more mass surveillance even finds its way into legislation, with councils using such legislation to obtain metadata.

This is the road to digital serfdom: Once the door is opened, it never shuts. How does one keep the door shut? Limitations on government power (i.e., mass surveillance by governments forbidden in a Bill of Rights).