The surveillance state is not the answer

Joe Oakes

July 4, 2018

The debate over freedom of speech has been a focus point of UK politics over the past few years. With the rise of globalisation, it is more important than ever that every group feels represented. Protecting freedom of speech is the only way to ensure that our democracy continues to flourish and that the rights of all people are respected.

For the liberal, this means protecting the rights of the individual and not allowing others to infringe upon them. As J.S.Mill said: “I will only throw my fist as far as the tip of your nose.” In order to fully integrate the new and the old, the right and the left, the black and the white; it is essential that all views are heard, even if they are upsetting. This is an imperative condition for the progression of our society.

As a society, we must ensure the unadulterated right to express one’s own opinion. It’s an empowering notion. However, we must acknowledge that there are undeniably problems that arise as a result of creating an environment whereby any feeling or view, no matter how despicable, can be expressed.

In many ways, modern technology has enhanced these issues. Anyone with access to the internet can anonymously propel bigoted vitriol at those who are particularly vulnerable; most of the time without fear of any consequences.

Unlike the rise of internet sensations such as Jordan Peterson, Mark Rubin, or Sam Harris – notable for the open criticism both of other ideas and their willingness to hear the criticism of their own – many extreme groups have their views uncriticised and left to fester in a dark corner of the internet. It isn’t just about the content of people’s conversations that is the issue, but also how easily they are allowed to express these ideas without criticism.

So what then is the solution? Do we buckle to modern pressures and sacrifice two of the great pillars of Western democracy: privacy and freedom of speech? Or do we have to take a different approach to managing these new problems?

I first became aware of these issues when I witnessed the 2011 London riots. The unregulated Blackberry messenger system made it possible for groups to easily and rapidly assemble in order to mercilessly loot their own towns. If a police officer had overheard a conversation stating these aims, suspicions would have arisen; and if the conversation incited intended, likely and imminent violence then the individuals would have been arrested. With unregulated text and online messages, we have made it easier for criminals to devise their plans; leaving the police with the sole job of cleaning up the mess rather than preventing it in the first place.

But, surely we can’t blame the smartphones, only the people using them? The notion that the riots would never have happened if the authorities were able to regulate messenger is obviously ludicrous. If these people were so motivated to destroy their own cities, what is to say that blocking their access to media would have stopped them? Criminals will always devise new ways of communicating so that crime becomes easier. We cannot pay the price of sacrificing the individual privacy of everyone with the hope of preventing the crimes of a few – something I hope that the new Home Secretary has realised.

So, we must be wary of those who propose further regulations of social media; for it isn’t what the “surveillance state” knows, but the control it can consequently exercise.

Indeed, with open debate, good ideas can flourish and the bad can be challenged down. The fear of those ideas that fester without criticism is a rational one, but the solution in the form of regulating social media, for example banning encryption is a shameful intrusion of our liberty.

Freedom of speech and the right to privacy are values long cherished in Western society. To sacrifice our fundamental liberties means sacrificing what defines us. We must encourage open debate in every corner of the internet, not state intrusion.


Joe Oakes is an intern at the Taxpayers’ Alliance.


Written by Joe Oakes

Joe Oakes is Communications Officer at 1828.


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