Dissent, the internet and freedom

Tech Liberty was formed because a group of us were concerned that governments were ignoring traditional civil liberties when it came to new technology. The New Zealand government had recently passed a digital copyright law that would see people punished without due process and were secretly introducing a new internet censorship regime. We decided that we needed to stick up for the civil liberties that underpin our democracy and keep our society healthy.

A recent article by Rob Weir does a good job of articulating what drives us. In How to Crush Dissent, he compares distributing information on the internet to the samizdat underground presses in the Eastern Bloc. He fears that our current anarchic level of information freedom could be temporary:

So, technology has not made dissent safer. We are merely fortunate that the political climes of 2010 permit more dissent. But if challenged, the powers that be have far greater tools to control information than they did in 1989. I am not certain the tools available to the individual come close to being able to withstand them.

He then talks about the importance of dissent, by which he means not just legally permitted free speech, but also the speech that is quickly banned in any totalitarian regime.

His fear is that as we move communication to the internet we are steadily developing the technological and legal tools – internet filtering, ISP tracking, laws against circumvention technology – that will give governments the ability to control what we do. His concern is that this will evolve until it is able to suppress dissent.

And I’m not an advocate of absolute free speech. There are copyright laws, there are privacy concerns, there are military secrets, there is child pornography. These all trump free speech. But I think that means that we make these activities illegal and vigorously prosecute those who break these laws. But we should be seeking the minimal technical means necessary to detect the violators, without introducing such technologies that, to the level of a mathematical certainty, eliminate the ability for these activities to take place. Because, if we do so, we also at the same time introduce mechanism that can be also used to crush political dissent.

At Tech Liberty we’re not as pessimistic as Rob Weir but we think he is worrying about the right issues. It’s important that we protect our traditional freedoms even as we modernise and update the ways we express them.