No Place to Hide

How the Internet endangers freedom of expression

A flying eagle carrying a speech bubble
Illustration by Dave Murray

Growing up in the Los Angeles of the 1970s, I often heard harrowing poolside tales about the stifling atmosphere of life in Soviet-occupied central and eastern Europe, a world of spies and informant neighbours, of bugged telephones and rooms. There was, our family friends told us, a constant threat of being whisked off in dark sedans in the middle of the night to interrogation rooms and prison and Siberian labour camps. The exchange of ideas, to the extent that it was possible in those violent, paranoid times, took place in secret and in person, in cold apartments and the back rooms of cafés, with as little physical evidence as possible. Broadsheets were printed anonymously, manuscripts circulated hand to hand, poems memorized. Although I understood that privacy had its own demons in what was then called the free world—the kitschy fearmongering of the McCarthy years, the files on citizens accumulated by the dark, obsessive director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover—I also believed that such goings-on were decisively part of the past; even their mention evokes, more than anything else, the smouldering, stylized atmosphere of a black and white film.

Jeffrey Rosen, an influential US legal commentator and author of The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, insists that preservation of privacy is crucial to the dignity of the individual, and to the freedoms that form the basis of liberal democratic societies. North America and Europe have mostly thrived in the post–World War II era, in part because of what Thomas Jefferson called the “marketplace of ideas”: allowing ideas to be exchanged freely in governments, in universities and research centres, in monolithic corporations and small, flexible start-ups, and among thoughtful citizens of all kinds. From our twenty-first-century perspective, the method of exchange seems almost quaint: conversations among people in offices and conference rooms, lecture halls and classrooms, kitchens and coffee shops—venues that have existed in some form since, well, since human beings have engaged in conversations. Often governed by little more than common courtesy and civility, these conversations formed the better part of the public sphere and generated the ideas that have allowed our societies to move forward.

The digital era seemed to enable this phenomenon to go completely global in just a few decades. Like so many adopters of email and the Internet, and eventually social media, I assumed that my benign communications with friends and colleagues were not so different from the conversations we used to have over coffee or drinks, except that now I could leap from New York to London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and even remotest central Asia without ever leaving my Toronto apartment.

Suddenly, people could chat with like-minded people time zones and continents away, and ordinary citizens without access to traditional print media could create a website or a blog and weigh in on the issues of the day from their own idiosyncratic perspectives. With the advent of powerful wireless mobile devices and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, all of this could take place anywhere, anytime, at the speed of light, so that otherwise chaotic and volatile events—the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street—could be collectively orchestrated and documented in real time. Best of all, it seemed these exchanges could take place in a condition of unchecked, unregulated freedom and anonymity; the Internet was, we thought, by nature populist, opposed to the powerful hierarchies that suffocate democracy.

As early as the 1980s, though, iconoclastic hacker collectives began penetrating the servers of corporations, research laboratories, and the United States government itself. More recent, and far more dramatic, computer security breaches have included Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s upload of 720,000 US military documents and diplomatic cables to the Swedish-based servers of WikiLeaks; and the ongoing release of classified documents from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Clearly, the Internet and the global free flow of information have some notable downsides.

Along with our increasing anxiety over cyber-spying and cyber-attacks comes a deepening unease over the ubiquity and invasiveness of data mining via our email and social media accounts, and a greater awareness about the impact of cyber-mobbing and bullying and revenge porn. Unifying these diverse concerns is the sense that what is being invaded, and grievously eroded, are both our privacy and our agency. Our sense of agency relies, at least in part, on our ability to control our own stories, and which narratives we choose to keep private. Without privacy, we risk losing control of our stories and, ultimately, ourselves.

In November of 2009, Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative Party operative and right-hand man to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, delivered a lecture titled “Campaign Ethics: Do Canadian Elections Pass the Smell Test? ” at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. Amid what one can only imagine was a dry discussion about the limits of the adversarial system that dominates politics and law in Canada and the United States, he argued that even the most unpopular, repugnant figures should receive a vigorous defence and a fair day in court; our criminal justice system depends upon it. Flanagan observed that this crucial tenet had been forgotten by Stockwell Day, then provincial treasurer, when he accused Alberta lawyer Lorne Goddard of supporting child pornography because he was willing to defend a person accused of possessing it. Flanagan then went on to remark, “That actually would be another interesting debate for a seminar, like what’s wrong with child pornography, in the sense that they’re just pictures? ” His comment—and what followed four years later—came close to destroying his distinguished, if controversial, career and reputation.

He tells his version of events in his latest book, a combination memoir and philosophical rumination, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age. His downward spiral began on February 27, 2013, when he delivered a lecture at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, entitled “Is It Time to Reconsider the Indian Act? ” His views on the act, and more generally on the reserve system in Canada (he advocates for at least partial privatization of tribal lands), are well known by and unpopular with much of the Aboriginal community.

The seasoned contrarian arrived at the talk expecting a lively debate with a few dozen students and professors. Activists from local First Nations sympathetic to the Idle No More movement also came out to the lecture in force and were, at least in Flanagan’s view, openly hostile. During the question period, a man named Levi Little Mustache delivered a rambling speech that referred to Flanagan’s remarks on child pornography years earlier. The professor naively took the bait, arguing that it was unfair to imprison people for simply possessing child pornography rather than directly harming children, alluding to John Stuart Mill’s distinction between direct and indirect harm, in his seminal essay On Liberty. Unbeknownst to Flanagan, the whole discussion was recorded on a cellphone. Overnight, a misleadingly edited video with the tag line “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography” was posted on YouTube by Idle No More activist Arnell Tailfeathers. Condemnation came swiftly, often via Twitter: from the Prime Minister’s Office, the president of the University of Calgary, colleagues at CBC (where he served as a political commentator), and newspapers large and small.

He was, as he repeatedly suggests, the victim of what Stanley Cohen—author of the classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers—calls “moral panic.” Cohen writes that moral panic, which in North America can be traced back to such events as the witch hunt that led to the infamous Salem trials in the late seventeenth century, stems from outrage over a perceived threat to the social order, and leads to a suspension of ordinary standards of reason, judgment, and due process.

Mobbing, whether in the workplace, the schoolyard, or society at large, happens when moral panic is harnessed by the punitive power of the group. “Mobbing in the physical sense of lynching is much less common than it used to be,” Flanagan writes. “But at the same time new opportunities for mobbing have opened up. Social media, combining on the Internet with older mass media, provide an almost cost-free venue for expressing moral outrage. Voilà virtual mobbing! Press a few keys and you can join in denouncing someone you’ve never met but who is reported to have said something offensive.”

Persona Non Grata would be a self-pitying, self-serving exercise in setting the record straight, by an aging political operative and professor who was thrown under the bus by far more ruthless politicians, had it not raised an important question about the Internet as a venue for conducting the conversations we need to have. Could it be that the Web’s global reach, as well as the elaborate and sophisticated forms of social media that come with it, actually stifles freedom of expression rather than promotes it?

The concept of privacy, along with what constitutes human dignity, has shifted over the past fifty years, and even more so over the past decade. Fewer and fewer of us worry about others seeing our bodies, or knowing our sexual preferences, or being aware of our deepest doubts and fears, which we reveal daily on our Facebook and Twitter pages. But privacy, and how it frames our interactions, is less about what we reveal than about what we choose to reveal, and about exerting privileged control over our own unfolding stories.

When Edward Snowden exposed the epic scale of NSA surveillance into the digital lives of US citizens and everyone else as part of the broad yet vague war on terror (as with the failed war on drugs, the target is moving and all encompassing), he set in motion a much-needed debate about the degree of intrusion into our private lives we are willing to accept in the name of government security.

To think that the issue applies exclusively to the US would be naive. In 2012, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment conducted a sweeping, unauthorized, and arguably illegal surveillance operation on mobile devices in and around a Canadian international airport, in what they described as a test run.

Anxiety over governments using the latest and greatest technologies to spy on citizens’ private lives is hardly new. In his groundbreaking book Privacy and Freedom, Alan Westin set off similar alarm bells back in 1967. He also predicted that government surveillance technologies would appear in the private sector, and that the very idea of being surveilled poses a threat to freedom of expression.

Westin’s book came out shortly after consumer video cameras appeared on the market in the late 1960s. “Now that such recording devices have become general commodities,” he writes in a chapter devoted to the centrality of privacy in modern democratic societies, “we must consider the impact of their use on our freedom of private expression, and the widespread public assumption that our personal conversations are being recorded, whether they are in fact or not.” The problem is not only that Big Brother might misuse our personal information for some ulterior purpose, but that loss of privacy in and of itself changes how we communicate with one another.

That Snowden stole, by some estimates, close to two million classified documents and ultimately fled to Russia, where his temporary asylum comes up for review this July, is almost irrelevant. Highly sophisticated data mining, advertising, and marketing already gather information about us using methods similar to the NSA’s, and many of us already provide plenty of information about ourselves to the world via social media.

At a time when recording devices have become small, cheap, and ubiquitous, all speech is now public, beyond the speaker’s control. In Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes considerable space to lamenting that, while he was blindsided by a virtual lynch mob when he was off the grid, on the road between Lethbridge and Calgary, he of all people failed to launch a counteroffensive when he still could have; his book, written in less than a year, clearly makes a belated attempt to do so.

However, the more compelling passages are philosophical. “There are no longer any reliably private discussions, conversations, or even moments,” he writes. “Any sound or image can be recorded. It is now so easy that there is no point trying to prevent it.” A few paragraphs later, he spells out the troubling implications: “If everything is eternally public and nothing can be forgotten, individuals lose all private control over their own identity.”

The importance of privacy in liberal democratic societies has never been about concealing from government or the public our compulsions and perversities: the porn sites we visit; the pathetic, drunken messages we send in the middle of the night; the Google searches that expose our irrational fears and unhinged fantasies. Rather, it is about our capacity to engage in fluid conversations with one another, in a context in which we need not fear being misunderstood or maligned by people we do not even know.

Actual conversations are by their nature experimental: ideas are proposed, argued for, revised, and discarded, and new ones are put on the table; that is the process through which problems are creatively solved. The notion that one could be held globally accountable for any single statement shuts down the dialogue as a whole.

In the end, we are not global beings who can be in Toronto, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Bishkek, and Kabul at the same time; we are creatures who move forward by talking with people we know and trust and sometimes love. While the global information infrastructure—from the NSA’s servers to celebrities’ Twitter accounts—is an irreversible fact, perhaps the way into the future is not through a global conversation conducted online, whatever that really means, but via many smaller, more intimate ones all over the globe.

We need to find a way of modelling our digital communications on the forms of etiquette and civility we mostly observe in the immediacy of face-to-face exchanges. Conversation is, after all, an intimate act between people, even strangers hunched over their iPhones thousands of miles apart, and it is that intimacy that makes conversation irreplaceable.

This appeared in the May 2014 issue.

Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.
Dave Murray
Dave Murray has done work for ABC Television, Playboy, and the Wall Street Journal, among others.