Freedom of speech, it’s all very well in theory, but in practice we citizens of the digital world can get awfully out of hand without a little ‘encouragement’ from our if-you-will overseers. The Gettysburg Address may have been inspiring, but it doesn’t help us deal with the disheveled remains of the war on terror. Paine’s Rights of Man may have fended off Burke’s attack on democracy, but it won’t thwart the next extremist to pull a gun in a London street. I’m trying to see this matter from the perspective of the GCHQ agents in charge of the ‘Mastering the Internet’ (MTI) project. Those who concluded their cavalier project briefing by stating that “you have access to a lot of sensitive data … have fun and make the most of it”.
Orwellian is a tempting word for the GCHQ revelations, but even this dark, dystopian term, a favourite of political commentators the world over, doesn’t cut it this time. Big Brother may have dominated all it surveyed, but at least those involved weren’t told to ‘have fun and make the most of it’. It appears that even Mr Orwell couldn’t imagine a government that would revel in its omniscience quite as much as those in possession of our emails, phone-calls and social-media contributions seem to.
The most apparent response from an unsurprisingly silent security agency is a claim that GCHQ targets searches within a massive amount of data and doesn’t indiscriminately read communications. The idea that covert, random spying on one’s own citizens might be illegal was dismissed as ‘baseless’ by a beleaguered William Hague in an ironically baseless statement. Across the Atlantic there are hints of ‘We’re doing it to protect your freedom’ type responses that smack of Bush-era nonsense propaganda. To give credit where credit is due, at least the American respondents have got a grip of the issue here, realizing that we proles may be worried generally by how much our governments can covertly undermine our personal freedoms whilst GCHQ remain under the impression that we’re okay as long as George Osborne can’t read our shopping lists. Back on the down side, a defence that amounts to ‘we’re monitoring your every move to protect your liberty’ highlights a lack of appreciation for irony that makes even George Dubbya look like Rory Bremner.
The hypocrisy of our governments really came to a head on the 22nd when US Secretary of State John Kerry promised support to the Syrian rebels “not to win a victory for power [but] to allow for an absence of oppression”, before proceeding in short order to request extradition for the man who pointed out that powers closer to home may be indulging in oppression of their own. Edward Snowden is allegedly now in Russia and we here in Airstrip One are told to rally against the Eurasian giant. The question is do the rights of the prole really matter in this playground of super-powers?