WHEN I HOSTED a major international conference in Edinburgh in September 1994 I invited Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, to give a keynote speech. At that time the web was in its infancy and Tim was in the process of moving from Geneva to Boston to set up the WWW Foundation at MIT.
I asked him about his vision for this technology which was just beginning to be widely adopted around the world. he was hopeful that it would open up democracy and that the web would make it increasingly difficult for repressive regimes to maintain control of their citizens when they gained the ability to communicate more freely.
Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Governments everywhere have learned how to utilise modern communication technology to spy on their citizens, and to exercise control over them; and even in western liberal democracies the level of supervision we have allowed into our lives is disturbing.
David Eggers wrote a fascinating novel, The Circle, about a massive dominant Google/Facebook-like company in the near future which gradually takes more and more privacy away from its users. It has now been made into a film, due this spring, starring Emma Watson. It paints a dystopian future where all personal privacy is eventually lost.
And it does seem that we might be heading that way: it was recently reported that the Canadian tax authorities have been monitoring the social media postings of citizens to gather evidence of tax evasion; that Trump’s border patrol have been monitoring people’s Facebook entries for evidence of political views; and a fugitive from justice was recently nabbed in Mexico after posting his selfies on Facebook.
In China, it is estimated that the government employs more than 50,000 people to monitor and control what is written on social media. As well as obvious no-no’s, such as any discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the authorities have suppressed debate about shoddy building standards which caused school buildings to collapse, and the entire internet was switched off for months in a north-west region of 19 million people after ethnic riots broke out.
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has famously learned to speak mandarin and The New York Times reported last november that Facebook has been developing a feature to allow suppression of posts in specific geographic areas. It will be interesting to see whether this might open the door to the massive Chinese market that he would clearly love to add to his empire.
Meanwhile, here in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Act became law on november 29 2016. This new law had originally attracted heated opposition in parliament but after the Brexit vote attention was largely diverted elsewhere, and it finally became law without too much controversy.
This law requires every internet and telephone service provider to record every single website visited or phone call made by each and every one of us, and to retain this information for 12 months. The authorities can search this information at any time, without any fuss. No contacts are secret, the state knows them all.
If they want more, they can apply to the Home Secretary for a warrant to access all the content of all transactions or conversations made by any individual. In 2015 there were 2,700 such warrants approved.
US whistleblower edward Snowden tweeted: “The UK just legalized the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”
Is this a field in which we are happy to lead? ■