Freedom of the press now concerns us all

Nick Cohen condemns Lord Justice Leveson for failing to get to grips with the real issues surrounding free speech and privacy in the digital age

Who is watching you? And who are you watching?
Nick Cohen
On 6 July 2012 09:01

In 1998 a science-fiction writer called David Brin tried his hand at science fact. Brin's predictions in The Transparent Society were not accurate in all respects – predictions never are. But he provided a way of thinking about the modern forms of invasion of privacy, which concern Lord Justice Leveson, and the criminalisation of speech, which unfortunately troubles him less.

At the end of the last century Utopian enthusiasts for the internet and all the computerised and miniaturised technologies that accompanied it, thought that scientific progress had allowed them to escape censorship. They foresaw an age of freedom when dictators, judges and secret policemen would no longer be able to contain them.

Techno-enthusiasts brushed aside the possibility that malicious public and private bodies (including malicious newspapers) could exploit computer technologies.

Online activists, most notably Phil Zimmermann of Pretty Good Privacy, thought they could secure the emancipatory potential of the web with encryption systems that dark forces could never crack. A dissident in a dictatorship, for example, would use the web to circumvent state controls. But the technology was Janus-faced. Just as it gave him new powers, it gave the authorities new and minatory means to monitor him.

Western geeks could solve his problem by giving him codes which ensured that only his intended recipients in the underground could read his emails. Western citizens could use encryption too if they wished. But as voters in democracies they could also demand that governments give them legally enforceable rights to protect their privacy.

Brin's Transparent Society stood out from the mass of now forgotten predictions about the internet because he understood that technology had made old levels of privacy impossible: "The djinn cannot be crammed back into the bottle. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to legislate away the new tools and techniques."

The best encryption systems in the world are of no use if the state or another public, private or criminal organisation can place a miniature camera behind you while you type, or insert a program into your system to monitor your key strokes.

Instead of trying to protect the unprotectable, Brin called for political change to match changes in technology. He envisaged possible responses by imagining how two cities might look in 2018.

In his first city, cameras were on every vantage point. Only the authorities could access them. Crime fell, but the city's inhabitants knew that the police could monitor their behaviour and record their arguments against the status quo.

Brin's second city looked much like the first. It, too, had cameras on every vantage point. All citizens could access them via devices on their wristwatches, however. (He could not predict the sophistication of the modern mobile phone.)

A woman walking home could check that no one was lurking behind a corner. A man late for a date could check if his girlfriend was still waiting for him. When the police arrest a suspect they do so with meticulous attention to his rights because they know that unknown eyes might be monitoring them.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for Standpoint and the Observer. His most recent book, You Can't Read this Book, was published in 2012

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