Monday, July 9, 2012...10:03 pm

Heather Brooke at #BathLitFest – restore Enlightenment values to protect freedom

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Months late, here’s Heather Brooke – author of The Silent State and The Revolution will be Digitised speaking at this year’s Bath Literary Festival on March 8.

It’s posted so late because I had hoped to clean up the audio file better. As it is, it’s a bit echoey, there’s some crude sound cleanup that sounds a bit horrible, and Brooke had a cold, so most of the coughing is hers. But it’s generally audible.

It’s an intriguing and relevant discussion, given our seeming willingness to sacrifice any protections of civil liberty in exchange for ‘security’. Brooke’s key quote is here, but the rest of it is worth trying to listen to:

“It shocks me how our world has just ditched Enlightenment values wholesale […] Governments argue that they need to do things to protect the nation. But what is the nation but a series of values? In a democratic society those values are open justice, the rule of law, the right to privacy, not to be interfered with unless there is probable cause. So if the state then ditches those values, I don’t see how you can justify that in the name of national security”

Running order
0-20 minutes: Heather Brooke presentation (with a slideshow you can’t see)
20-43 minutes: on-stage discussion with chair James Runcie
43-60 minutes: audience Q&A

Key points

  • Information could be contained by and in nation states – once it is digitised it becomes global. So the way the powerful control it no longer works.
  • Power is shifting in the most dramatic way since the invention of the Gutenberg press.
  • The idea of the Panopticon and universal surveillance – an 18th century idea that is now being facilitated by modern technology. On the internet we are being watched all the time.
  • Some states have managed to control the internet (China, Iran), but part of the reason that people in Tunisia could use it to facilitate their revolution is because it’s very difficult to centrally control the mechanism of the internet.
  • The internet gives you the freedom to speak truths beyond the orthodoxy.
  • Examples: women in Saudi Arabia posting videos of themselves driving and using a Twitter hashtag to link up and support each other in a wider movement to protest the country’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement.
  • The internet’s managed chaos has started to distil into centres of power: Google, Facebook, Twitter (discuss).
  • States are starting to wise up to how powerful the internet is. Initially, Mubarek didn’t realize the power of the internet and who the players were. This is no longer likely to be the case.
  • Increasingly, nation states are trying to find ways of controlling the internet – it’s too challenging. Law enforcement agencies are starting to use the centres of power of the internet as de facto intelligence agencies – demanding user data from Facebook, Google and Twitter.
  • Facebook never fights government subpoenas; Google and Twitter do.
  • According to the annual Freedom House survey, the number of “partly free” and “not free” countries is increasing rapidly.
  • One way of controlling global information is to extend its jurisdiction – the US has been doing this with copyright to crack down on file-sharing sites anywhere in the world.
  • One tool of control is the internet domain naming system, which is controlled by the US and can be used to justify blocking access to web hosting.
  • This kind of approach legitimises online repression by countries such as Russia and China, which have moved to demand that information be delineated by national boundaries.
  • Read my book!

At about the 22-minute mark, there’s an interesting discussion about the rights and wrongs of over-zealous copyright protection.

“Somebody has to pay for artistic production – the problem is it’s too restrictive.”

Brooke also tackles the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear” position: very few people are targeted for surveillance, but the potential for surveillance is unlimited.

“I’m more concerned about the government than the hackers – there are always criminals around, and by all means the state should  investigate those criminals, but the energy is going into hackers who are challenging the authorities about what they are doing”

Other themes
Thanks partly to Wikileaks, laws are being tightened up making it more difficult to whistle blow or protect your sources as a journalist. Plenty on the personal issues of Julian Assange – who Brooke argues shouldn’t have used the morality of his stated cause to justify his personal moral shortcomings.

Journalists will be pleased she thinks they will still be needed to make sense of the food of leaked and other data that is becoming available.

  • Checking – to make sure it is true and unhampered with
  • Verifying – talking to sources to back up claims

Audience Q&A

  • Does the Freedom of Information Act make it harder for Government to make decisions? (Maybe – but accountability is vital)
  • What is Brooke’s position on Phorm and RIPA(Phorm is out of the remit of the book, RIPA is murky, difficult to understand and the safeguards it promises are not enforced)
  • A long, rambling question that ends up in a discussion about how we can know what is true in a sea of information and dis-information. (We need a renaissance in Civics – teaching people how society works and the importance of the rule of law. Just because we have technology, we mustn’t throw out core values. Technology makes the law seem too slow – so we are tempted to simply throw it out.)
  • Do we need identity theft protection insurance (No – it should be part of the package of citizenship)
  • Does freedom of communication mean a free pass for criminals? (No – the key issue is ‘are people innocent, or are they always potential suspects online’. That is not democratic – and it’s a waste of resources. It’s lazy policing. It’s not that countries with blanket surveillance don’t have any crime)

“Surveillance is not about making people safer – it’s about control. The concentration of power by the state has always been the biggest danger to humanity”

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