Friday, September 28, 2012

Freedom, Fear, and the Internet

One of America's cultural values is the belief that freedom is important. My native country hasn't always been consistent about applying that value: but I think we've got a pretty good track record.

When I became a Catholic, I learned why freedom is so important. That's real freedom: not 'free to agree with the boss.' Here's a quick look at what I'm talking about:
  • Individual freedom is very important
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1730-1742, 1901-1902, 1907, 1915)
  • So is responsibility
    (Catechism, 1731-1738)
  • Government is
    • Necessary
      (Catechism, 1898)
    • Not the highest moral authority
      (Catechism, 1899-1904)
  • Governments can be a threat to freedom
    (Catechism, 1883)
Believing that freedom and responsibility are important can make being a good citizen tricky. Particularly since 'I was just following orders' isn't an acceptable excuse:
"...I also have to be a good citizen. (Catechism, 1915, 2411, 2239) But 'giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar' doesn't include believing that some local authority can redefine natural law.

I'm expected to do good and avoid evil: even if some leader says otherwise. (Catechism, 2242) ...
(July 6, 2012)
The folks running America look different today, and say different things. But in other ways the establishment hasn't changed very much in the last half-century. I've been over this before:
Today's America is still a pretty good place to live, I think. But keeping our freedoms means paying attention. As I've said before, there's an election coming in November.
  1. Threats to Freedom, Obvious and Otherwise

1. Threats to Freedom, Obvious and Otherwise

As usual, reading more than the headline makes sense. This article doesn't show that America has become a 'second-class nation,' although some politico or 'expert' may say so before the election:
"U.S. lags Estonia in web freedom, reports says" (September 24, 2012)

"More than three quarters of citizens have access to the Internet, there's widespread e-commerce and e-government services, and the press and bloggers are free to say anything online.

"No, it's not the U.S. It's Estonia.

"The Baltic country of 1.27 million topped a list from Freedom House published Monday assessing the state of the net in 2012, with the fewest obstacles to access and violations of Internet rights.

" 'Estonia has become a model for free Internet access as a development engine for society,' the report concludes, noting that 'the program's focus has shifted from basic concerns such as access, quality, and cost of Internet services to discussions about security, anonymity, the protection of private information, and citizens' rights on the Internet.'

"The U.S. earned second place in the report, with a score of 12 out of 100 – just two points shy of first place....
I'm not upset, or surprised, that America came in second in the Freedom House list.

Estonia isn't America

The two countries aren't the same. For one thing, Estonia is a whole lot smaller than America: or Minnesota, the state where I live. Estonia's population is a little less that one quarter Minnesota's 5,344,861 estimated 2011 number - and far less than America's 311,000,000 or so residents. (U. S. Census) I suspect that Estonia's leadership doesn't have quite the same concerns as America's.

The Freedom House report looked at how countries handled Information Age issues like:
  • Internet services
    • Access
    • Quality
    • Cost
    • Security
    • Anonymity
  • Protection of private information
  • Citizens' rights on the Internet

Crime, Caution, and Freedom

Someone could make a few juicy conspiracy theories, starting with these paragraphs:
"...The report, titled 'Freedom on the Net 2012,' cautioned that recent developments may threaten that freedom, however.

" 'The current administration appears committed to maintaining broad surveillance powers' to combat crime, the report says. 'Moreover, reports have emerged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is seeking expanded authority … to ensure that communications can be intercepted when necessary.'...
Depending on which set of folks I wanted to impress, I could claim that the FBI is in cahoots with the
Then there's the nifty notion that 'all of the above' are really run by shape-shifting, space-alien lizard men, and that's another topic or two.

More seriously, I am concerned about what could happen in America if legitimate concerns over crime and national defense got distorted by fear and a desire for control.

Threats, real or imagined, can be frightening; and fear can help folks do strange things:

It Could be Worse

"...Countries lagging on the list come as no surprise. In last place is Iran, with a score of 90 out of 100 -- indicating a near total lack of freedom online. The country announced on Sunday that it would filter access to Google's services, after a video on YouTube titled 'Innocence of Muslims' led to widespread rioting and violence across the Muslim world...."
I suppose there's some comfort in knowing that things could be worse. America, after all, is almost at the top of that 'Internet freedom' list. Folks in some parts of the world have a much harder time getting information and sharing ideas:
"...On Monday, a Google spokesman told that Iranians were unable to access its services.

" 'We have received information that users cannot get access to Gmail and Google Search in Iran. We have checked our networks and there is nothing wrong on our side.'

"Other countries earning failing grades for Internet freedom include Cuba (86), China (85), and Syria (83).

"Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House, said the report revealed the growing challenges to freedom on the World Wide Web.

" 'The findings clearly show that threats to Internet freedom are becoming more diverse. As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier - but no less dangerous - methods for controlling online conversations.' "
I'm not worried that America will suddenly become 'just like' Iran, or Syria, or Cuba. I do, however, remember when America was cleaning up the mess left by HUAC and other over-enthusiastic efforts to 'protect' America.

As I said, folks can do strange things when they're frightened. Another source of trouble, I think, is the well-intentioned meddler who likes to help people. You can tell who's being helped, by the hunted look in their eyes. And that's yet another topic.

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