Special to WorldTribune.com
By Grace Vuoto
For centuries, in every society around the world, citizens have by and large believed that a higher power watches their every move.
“The eyes of God see all,” goes the Christian saying. Yet, for a brief moment in time, from the dawn of the widespread use of the Internet in the mid-1990s to the recent shocking revelations by whistleblower Eric Snowden, many were hoodwinked into believing that individuals could roam the public realm of the Internet, and yet it was nonetheless a private act. Suddenly, there was no one watching.
Progressives had first dispensed with God, then religion, then morality, then social conventions and at last, the Internet promised freedom from all prying eyes. For the first time in human history, one could interact with the public realm and remain anonymous. This was the pinnacle of the progressive dream of individual liberty: total freedom, no one watching and no one passing judgment. Or so it seemed.
The Internet consists of a double revolution. The first is the speed at which information can be transmitted. The second revolution is that it collapses the difference between what is public and what is private. In the privacy of one’s bedroom, for example, one can now wander into the Red Light District of pornography, or the underground world of bomb-making, or indulge in gambling — and no one will know. By contrast, through Facebook, one can send a picture of a private part, a la Anthony Weiner, and everyone will know. Relatives in New York City can enjoy a wedding taking place in Tel Aviv, as they view pictures and video streams posted on social media. Colleagues can see their co-worker going on a hike on social media over the weekend. And “friends,” those who used to be members of a very private and exclusive club, are now anyone at all that cares to click yes to an electronic invite.
Thus, the long-cherished distinction between the public and the private — one that is a bulwark of Western civilization — is beginning to vanish. The public realm can be accessed in private; the private realm can be broadcast to the public. What is the difference? Does it matter?
The Internet was hailed as a great tool of personal liberation, too. It was going to set us all free. Dissidents who challenge their oppressive governments have access to the fountain of ideas that spark revolution and create democracy. Capitalists can buy goods from around the world with the click of a button. And citizens of the world can meet fellow travelers in a chat room of mutual interest. We would be freer — and yet more connected to one another, regardless of cultural differences or distance, went the media hype.
That was the Golden Age of the Internet, historians will soon write. And now we have discovered that it is all one big lie.
Every single letter that is typed on a keyboard as one surfs the Internet is being recorded: methodically, systematically, mercilessly by the American government. This is the shocking revelation by a former contract worker at the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, who in early June leaked classified documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. There is a secret program called PRISM, he informs us, that is monitoring Internet activity, in collaboration with major service providers.
We now know that every stroke of the keyboard is a public act, not a private one. And worse: unlike a deed that takes place in one moment in time and then vanishes, all our computer deeds will be immortalized. We cannot take them back. Individuals can forgive the deeds of an alcoholic, a gambler, an adulterer — yet, the Internet will never forgive nor forget. One slip and that transgression is next to your name, defining you, haunting you, rewritten time and again in inquiries about you.
And now it dawns on us all: The Internet is not the greatest tool of personal liberation, but the greatest trap; one that sucks up the word freedom and destroys it. It is not just the distinction between the public and private that is disappearing. It is also the distinction between freedom and slavery. In the name of freedom, we are all being enslaved.
All those companies we were told to trust — our friendly service providers who send us annoying notices about how carefully they are protecting our privacy — were lying: Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, Skype, Apple, and AOL have been engaged in a secret bargain with the government. The current protestations of these companies that they are not in collusion are patently false; this is a public relations nightmare for them. They have been caught with their proverbial pants down.
In a nutshell: Big Business and Big Government are working together to track our every move, all the time.
And so now we have to rethink how freedom is preserved. Let’s do it backwards in time, putting up the barriers to government in reverse as to how they were dismembered by ignorant liberals and complicit conservatives: Social conventions restrain individuals, morals teach them to respect others, religion forms conscience, faith in God instills virtue and fear of wrongdoing. All of this puts limits on what man does to man — and that is what creates freedom.
All of these — social conventions, morals, religion, faith in God and fear of God — act as a bulwark against government power. And the concept of private property, from which all our notions of privacy stem, also sets a barrier against government intrusion. When we dismantle these, and blur the distinction between public and private, there is nothing standing between the individual and the government. Hence, there is tyranny.
Today, most of the barriers between the state and individual are disappearing. And now we know, thanks to Mr. Snowden, that the Internet gives the government an unprecedented ability to track, monitor and ultimately control every man, woman and child.
The Internet is now the government’s eye right in the bosom of our home, peering at our very fingertips. This is far worse than any intrusion by King George III that sparked the American Revolution.
Our Founding Fathers and many of the great thinkers of Western Civilization taught us the recipe for individual freedom. Shame on us: We have forgotten it.
Dr. Grace Vuoto is Editor of Culture and Politics at WorldTribune.com and the founder of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.