We’re living in very troubled times. The signs of this are everywhere, from Trump through Brexit to the increasing authoritarianism of President Xi in China. Across Europe, reactionary and xenophobic politicians are gaining support.
Economic distress has lead to a desire for certainty and protection. There is a retreat from the certainties of growing prosperity and a future in which the world would be more open and liberal. Instead, governments are enjoying popular support for clampdowns on our civil liberties, and seem to think the public wants them to be tough, that is to remove hard fought for rights and freedoms.
The appeal to illiberal, closed and insular values has extends well into the conventional political parties, who appear to be responding to this trend.
This desire to satiate fears and to appear strong is a dangerous strategy, as it risks feeding and legitimising the impulses rather than removing them. The result is that we’re facing what arguably amounts to the worst set of threats to democratic values since the Second World War.
This trend to authoritarianism is taking place at a time when national governments feel perhaps even less able to deal with the external and changing world. The conventional political responses to terrorism and extremism illustrate this paradox extremely well: while governments find it hard to identify the means to deal with the root causes of political extremism, such as poverty and political abuse, they can focus on matters closer to home.
This provides the impulse for surveillance and censorship. These are things that can be done, and therefore, in the current political mindset, should be done. And that combination makes the digital world one of the most important frontiers in the fight for democratic values.
In the last year, we have seen the British government legitimise its use of the Internet as a vast Panopticon. In the name of the war on terrorism, the government keeps virtual files on every UK citizen when our data is swept up into GCHQ’s data vaults. We are constantly assessed, whoever we are, without any need for a specific reason. The reason is that we’re using the Internet, so should expect to be watched.
Similar powers have been granted to the police through the draconian Investigatory Powers Act, who may well be using our Internet Connection Records right now as well as a search engine called the “filter” to perform data trawls for much more mundane reasons.
This is where the illiberal impulse leads us: sweeping powers for terrorism swiftly become tools that can be used for anything that the government doesn’t like.
Having got what the government wanted on surveillance, the government is turning its attention onto removing the “bad things” from the Internet. It wants the “bad things” to be removed, swiftly, by big corporations such as Google and Facebook, who it holds directly responsible for aiding the spread of extremism.
“We will not shy away from tackling harmful behaviours and harmful content online – be that extremist, abusive or harmful to children.
“We will make sure that technology companies do more,” said the government at the time of the Queen’s Speech.
The Digital Charter, and the softer policy measures proposed in September by the Department for Culture Media and Sport (who are in charge of the Internet, you understand) are designed to push companies into greater customer censorship. While the government wants content it claims to be dangerous to be removed, it also does not want to pay for it. It certainly does not want the courts involved, and is not proposing any meaningful kind of oversight, transparency or scrutiny – except when a company fails to remove something.
The plan appears to be to make companies the sole judge of whether content is legal, and to suffer fines if material is not censored when it should be.
This appears to be designed to make Facebook and Google censor as much as possible. The government also believes that technology should as much as possible do the censoring. Only a wish to profit, apparently, has stopped the companies from doing this already.
A world beckons where computer algorithms, corporations and governments collude to assess and censor everything we publish. Where we feel safe and protected, and will never see anything that offends or alarms.
This is not a world for liberals, the free thinking or indeed anyone who opposes the powerful. That’s why we need to fight back. We’ll be hearing from some of the people leading this battle at ORGCon next weekend in London.
Jim Killock is Director of the Open Rights Group. He will be speaking at ORGCon next week alongside Caroline Criado-Perez, Jamie Bartlett, Graham Linehan, Noel Sharkey and others