What does it mean to be free? The definition changes as society changes. Generally, “freedom” is a buzzword touted by political candidates, right-wingers, the figures of wartime. It is a term that is only used when the situation calls for its defense— when certain “freedoms” might be attacked. There is a “freedom” in carrying a weapon wherever you feel like it; there is a “freedom” in being able to marry the person you love. However, there are also the less-obvious freedoms that are willingly sacrificed every day, increasingly so as every person creates content and supplies data via tiny computers that are perpetually tracking their everyday whereabouts. Are we free if we are being mined for data without compensation or, necessarily, awareness? Our search engines, our social media, our texts, phone calls, emails, bank statements, all are being monitored (as blatantly evidenced in targeted advertising: “hmmm, we see that you’ve been browsing your Facebook friend’s wedding photos… want to browse some wedding dresses?”).
Tom McClean reveals just how deeply entwined economy and information truly are in the United States, in his article “Who Pays the Piper? The political economy of freedom of information.” It is in the interest of corporations that we have freedom of information, for several reasons, not the least of which being that they can become more effective by knowing government policy and intended changes in policy in order to protect themselves when it comes to utilizing information. We are all closely observed, in various carefully-executed, and legal, circumstances.
There is the inevitable omission of privacy in our contemporary technological society; thus, our conceptions of freedom must absorb the notion that we can no longer be truly alone in the world (save for drastic, perhaps eremitical measures). We no longer have a means of escape from government surveillance, or from accidental interconnectivity with our fellow citizens via things like location-based apps or targeted advertising influenced by our perceived relationships with others on the Internet. As long as a person is using the Internet there is, generally, a trail of observation close behind them.
While it doesn’t sound particularly Utopian to accept that we will be forever (and closely) monitored, this reality usually does not affect the life of the individual. Most people are walking around uninhibited by the knowledge that their faces are being scanned by security cameras, their spending habits are being tracked by credit card companies, or that their phone calls might be routinely scanned for various buzzwords. Again, the question of freedom usually only enters the conversation once something goes noticeably wrong.
There are innumerable horrors to be inflicted on the Internet; Internet bullying has become a real issue in school-age children across the world, identity theft is on the rise, and swatting is a thing. These are the ugly parts of a democratic landscape, where the middleman screen sits between the tormentor and the victim.
However, you can’t have one without the other— the argument is that the freedom of speech does not apply only to kindly worded or informative content. Ann Coulter has the right to bring words like “retarded” and “faggot” into political discussion just as much as the New York Times has the right to publish articles on whatever content they choose, without fear that their voices will be suppressed. This is the freedom of expression, which exists because of the first amendment of the United States constitution, and a pretty well-acknowledged truth that in this country you can say what you like (this is obviously not the case in other Internet cultures).
However, can we really say what we like on the Internet? Can we conduct research safely, securely, without being persecuted? Well, no. Not really.
There are a few ways that this unfortunate fact manifests itself— for example, and most recognizably, on Facebook. In Facebook’s data policy, they write: “We may access, preserve and share [the user’s] information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.” 
This is a tricky situation. Most people treat Facebook as an extension of their reality, which means that the rights and freedoms exercised outside the computer (read: the general ability to do/say most of the things you’d like without persecution, as long as you are not physically harming or harassing someone near you) are believed to exist within the context of this social media platform where our communication is intended for our friends, family, and colleagues.
However: what about stupid remarks made on Facebook regarding guns, death threats, etc., often in the context of a joke? In an instance like this, is freedom of speech being compromised? It’s true that it is also unlawful to threaten death, to cause harm or to harass those around us. But is the freedom of expression and the law that says you can’t threaten to kill the President (even as a joke) mutually exclusive? While it’s not exactly the most inviting example, it does get to the heart of what we can and cannot express on the Internet. It is, after all, common knowledge that the police regularly use Facebook to implicate citizens.
How do we try to navigate this landscape of policed “free” expression? The user is responsible for himself, but institutions might be able to assist the individual. For example, the public library in Lebanon, New Hampshire is making an attempt as one of the last bastions of the right to privacy. It was the first public library in the country to install Tor exit relays on its public terminals, thus protecting the identity of users in terms of finding out just who searched for what, or what activities were performed by which user. Homeland Security, of course, quickly objected, and shut the operation down.
Perhaps the answer to freedom lies then in complete transparency, on both sides? Perhaps the governing institution should make it clear to the user just what and when information is being collected. A great example of this is UC Berkeley, which is the first university in the United States to publish transparency reports to the public, detailing government requests for information.
If we cannot be allowed our curtain of privacy, why not enforce the laws that require the government to pull back theirs? As McClean writes, “access to official files arguably contributes to the “predictability” of government.” If we know what they’re looking for, we know how to protect ourselves— this has become the conversation of present-day freedoms.
- Mclean, Tom. “Who pays the piper? The political economy of freedom of information,” 2010. Department of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK.
- Facebook’s Data Policy. Accessed 30 September 2015.<https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/>
- Koehler, Jason. “A Dozen Libraries Want to Host Tor Nodes to Protest Government Fearmongering.” VICE: Motherboard. 17 September 2015. Web. Accessed 27 September 2015. <http://motherboard.vice.com/read/a-dozen-libraries-want-to-host-tor-nodes-to-protest-government-fearmongering>
- Glaser, April. “Every College Should Issue a Transparency Report About Government Requests for Student Data.” Slate. 18 September 2015. Web. Accessed 20 September 2015. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2015/09/18/uc_berkeley_issues_the_first_ever_university_transparency_report_others.html>
- Mclean, Tom. “Who pays the piper?…”
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