THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 353, February 5, 2006
Google is helping the Chinese government
keep the Chinese people oppressed.
The People are the Problem
Special to TLE
There are few activists out theremyself includedthat don't blame politicians in large part for most of the trouble we're in. It's politicians who raise taxes and who make laws infringing on liberty. It's politicians who spend other people's money and who exempt themselves from many of those liberty-infringing laws. Sometimes we lament that a government "by the people" and "of the people" isn't more so. After all, the the people in general are likely not so power hungry or poll driven as are politicians in general.
That supposition isn't wrong. The problem, though, is that it's never-the-less much mistaken. And that mistake is only making matters worse even as some work so tirelessly to make matters better. Where the focus is concerned, our aim is true. But even when we hit the target, we're missing it entirely. At the risk of still more mixed metaphors, I'll explain in connection with a friendly get-together I enjoyed one day after work last week.
Aside from the usual talk about work, children, pets, and the weather, it was impossible to avoid some discussion of the domestic surveillance brouhaha. Also on the agenda was the more recent news that the FBI was trying to get millions of Internet search records from various search engines or directories. To date, Google has refused, but Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL have complied (none have been forthcoming as to the extent of their cooperation).
Now, while Congress has opened in inquiry into the domestic spying issue and a report released by experts has called the surveillance "inconsistent with law," only a very bare majority of Americans think the President's actions are potentially a serious crime. That entire very serious matter was glossed over in a matter of minutes with a couple of "hey, we're in a war," and "we need to do whatever it takes to stop terrorism." When a point was raised about the President's domestic policies, there was no mention of the NSA, the PATRIOT Act, or other infringements of liberty. Instead, though most admitted that Bush was a disappointment to them domestically, the only specific complaint was that he'd failed to lower taxes enough.
Meanwhile, as regards the now famous Google subpoena, I was shot down the moment I mentioned that I resented anybody tracking my Internet use without a warrant. "Why?" one man laughed. "What kind of porn sites are you visiting?" When I told him it didn't matter what sites I visited, that my activity was personal outside of some suspicion of actually having committed a crime, he said, "Oh, I don't care if they know everywhere I go. I don't have anything to hide."
Though I didn't bring it up, I could have pointed out that a Yahoo! release of information to the Chinese government resulted in a man being imprisoned there. It seems someone criticized the Chinese government, Yahoo! offered up his identity on request, and the man ended up behind bars for the next decade accordingly. I suspect that wouldn't have mattered much to the man (though it should havecertain rights are supposedly unalienable and ours merely by virtue of our humanity), though I find it more than a little ironic that he, too, does business with China.
There's some argument in the international community concerning those who do business on the Internet since the 'net is a worldwide phenomenon. Which country's rules and regulations, for example, apply to such as free speech or privacy when a business does business in all of them? That debate will doubtless continue (Yahoo! is, in fact, in a tiff with France over merchandise sales there), but in this case there should be no argument. Yahoo! is an American company, and it willingly complied with a request from an American government agency that likely compromised the rights of everyone whose records were released.
Of course, none of that matters when those whose rights were violated welcome that violation. And more and more often, it seems that they do. And when I dared to suggest that such violations were unacceptable, there was more laughter and one person even jokingly called me the "queen of paranoia" because of my stance against government surveillance. (What makes me think I'm being watched? Do I really have that large an ego? Nope. I think I'm being watched because it seems that most of us are.)
Many of us blame the size of government for much of its intrusiveness and inefficiencies, and that's certainly true. But what's also a fact is the outcry generated by cutbacks. I have some interesting conversations with a woman friend of mine who happens to work for a local government entity. While we are polar opposites where the scope and necessity of various government functions is concerned, I do often find her perspective interesting and informative.
When we got together for lunch recently, we chatted about budget constraints. It seems the taxes collected just aren't enough to support all of the government's offerings, and people are looking to make some cuts. But every time officials finally start talking about cutting back, somebodyor a number of somebodiesgets on the phone and cries foul. It's hard enough to get any government entity to cut back, or even to curb its growth. But while people complain about tax rates, they also apparently aren't willing to give up any of their "free" government-provided perks.
Claire Wolfe, a dedicated pro-freedom writer, once said, "It's too late to work within the system." I'm coming more and more to agree with her. But I'm also discovering that, even if it's not too late, working within the system to change the system isn't going to be enough. If every time the system is changedor those who run the system are persuaded to run it differentlypeople demand the status quo, the changes won't stick. If every time the system is compromised people excuse the compromises, the system will only become more and more corrupt. And while the vast majority of politicians will likely take advantage of the circumstances, they're ably aided and abetted by a significant number of the people the government is by and for.
So do I suggest you stop bothering your representatives and instead focus on your neighbors? No, of course not. Change must still be affected, and the only way to do that is to change politicians (or change politicians' minds). And keeping those changed politicians honest (or at least relatively so) means keeping your eyes on them and staying in regular contact. But electing true defenders of the Constitution and Bill of Rights takes significant numbers of supporters. And keeping them from spending all of our money on various giveaways and other government largesse means that more of us have to be asking them not to do that than begging them for assistance.
If we want to make big changesand more importantly to keep themwe're going to have to have more people who are willing to accept some responsibility for themselves rather than relying on government to take over their obligations for them. The man who said he didn't care if the government followed him around the Internet also took note that the United States "had to" get involved in other countries when those people couldn't do their own fighting because their governments had taken all their guns. He's right. And if he has respect for one amendment, perhaps it wouldn't take so much to show him why the others deserve some respect, too.
I believe that there's at least one thing in most people worldview that's pro-freedom. Whether it be the realization that the lack of free speech in China is a bad thing or the confiscation of firearms in Iran is a danger all its own; whether it's taking note that American authorities have all too many people in jail for victimless crimes or that privacy has taken a huge hit in the wake of the War on Terror, there's always something. And if we can each of us relate that something to something else down the line, then we can make small changes among small numbers that will make those big changes a real possibility. And isn't that what we're really all working for?