A concept that is as much out-of-date as a powdered wig

King and Queen of Thailand

Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej (left) next to Queen Sirikit and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Photograph: Afp/AFP/Getty Images,m Guardian, 11-25-11

My grandfather was a man of the 19th century, even though he lived most of his life in the 20th century, he learned all of his values in the 19th century; and he learned them from people who still had one philosophical foot in the 18th century.  My grandfather believed in individual freedoms and state’s rights; simply, freedom from unwarranted government intrusion.  Cars, radios and telephones were the “modern” technologies of his time – but he never really became comfortable with any of them.  He did not want to be “connected” to everyone and everything on the planet – and while he was interested in the news, local and worldwide, he preferred to absorb it slowly.  Cell phones and Facebook would have shocked him, not for what they can do, but for the limits they place on our lives and our freedoms.

It is very common to read warnings about social network sites; “Beware, you never know who is reading your posts.”  Which of course implies that person writing the warning does know; your employer, your government, your spouse and the enemies of all of the causes you hold near and dear are all reading every word you write and looking at every picture you post.  To support those warnings, the media tell stories of spouses, employees and criminals caught in misdeeds by their own words on Facebook.  However, for the most part we have not been treated to stories of people whose words led to arrest and prosecution by the government.

The most notable exceptions are people who have been arrested as terrorists; the government is open in admitting it tracks suspected terrorists by all means available and that includes cell phones and social media.   We, the citizens, and our government are walking a very thin and dangerous line.  The police in London during the riots in the summer, stepped over that line, just as the police and army have done in the Middle East during civil unrest.   The police in San Fransisco did try to control cell phones.  However,  so far we have not heard any stories of city, state or national governments using cell phone transmissions, GPS positioning or social network to monitor the “Occupy” movement.  But we have to suspect, it has at least been considered – it is a time honored tactic of government to prosecute leaders of disruptive social movements for minor crimes (as revealed by intense scrutiny, such as the use of GPS and social networks) and thus taking them out of action.

Worldwide there have been government usages of social network, most famously during the early protests in Egypt.  Any government when threatened uses whatever it can to protect itself; witness  the two following stories. Both illustrate just how precarious and dangerous the line between private freedoms and the ability of the government – or spouses, employers and other snoopers – to peak into your life.  In Thailand and in the United Arab Emirates the governments are sending people to jail, not for their actions, but for their private words.

A government minister in Thailand has warned Facebook users that anyone pressing the “like” button on posts that might be offensive to the monarchy could be prosecuted under the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws. The warning was given two days after a Thai criminal court sentenced Amphon Tangnoppaku, 61, to 20 years in prison for sending text messages deemed insulting to the country’s queen. Guardian, 11-25-11

Five political activists have been sentenced to between two and three years in jail for insulting the leaders of the United Arab Emirates.  The main defendant, Ahmed Mansoor, a communications engineer and poet, was accused of running a website that provided a platform for the rest of the defendants to express alleged anti-government views. “The court pronounces publicly the following sentence: the accused Mansoor will be punished with imprisonment for three years for the charges against him,” a Federal Supreme Court judge said on Sunday. Al Jazeera, 11-27-11

In both the crime was expressing options about the rulers of the country – opinions the rulers felt was insulting or denigrating.  But we are safe aren’t we? It is still possible here, to make fun of the president without fear of arrest, but just a few decades ago, a couple of fanatics, J. Edger Hoover and Joseph McCarthy created a rein of terror just like Mao’s cultural revolution.  People’s lives were ruined because they were “said” to have un-American views. In those days we were not safe.

It probably will not happen in my lifetime, but by the end of this century governments will have the ability to follow and censure every part of the personal life of every citizen.  And because all governments fight to maintain their power – how many billions of dollars will be spent on the next presidential election? – every government will be tempted to control speach.

You think not, how many people do you know who are afraid to express their true opinions about their employer or to tell the truth about their private lives?  I have no point – the trend is not reversible, nor can it be stopped, it is driven by the technology; and new technology always finds users.  I just find it overwhelming and frightening, I grew up believing in freedom of speach.  But the kind of freedom of speach I was taught was an 18th century concept delivered to me by my grandfather. Certainly by the end of the 21st century that concept will be as much out-of-date as a powdered wig.


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