"Am I Next?" Thoughts on the Death of Free Expression

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This piece is a companion to the Dean-O-Files podcast #34, published 3/29. It can be found on Alternative Internet Radio.

 

Following the conviction of internet personality “Count Dankula,” I have found myself unable to shake a feeling of dread in my bones. A feeling that has the walls closing in on me. A feeling that has been sitting on my chest and in my gut like the boulder of Sisyphus, rolling up and down my spine, leaving me in alternating states of intense fear and furious anger.

These are the moments when I think hardest. What am I afraid of? What am I angry with? Well, after some time, I’ve figured it out.

I’m afraid because I’m next. I’m angry because no one seems to care.

I present to you the most important factors that are coalescing in our socio-political lives that I believe will lead to the end of free expression.

Censorship Acceptance

This trend is perhaps the most concerning of all of them. Denizens of the internet have been begging for censorship for years, and celebrating when supposedly unsavory characters are banned from sites like Twitter and Facebook.

I’ll be the first to say “f*ck Nazis.” I hate them, everyone hates them, and rightly so, but should we beg for them to be removed from avenues of public discourse? If Twitter wants to ban people they think don’t belong on their platform, that’s absolutely fine, but censor-mania doesn’t stop there. Some students want speakers they don’t like banned from their campuses, and many succeed in this goal. Those who beg for censorship seem to lack the self-awareness to understand that they are, very literally, protesting in opposition to their own rights. How much farther must this particular sentiment go before people begin voting for politicians who agree with them? Before they comprise enough of the electorate to actually start changing laws? We’ve witnessed this kind of thing happen in Europe already. How much longer until the government in the United States takes back the right to police our speech?

Online Censorship

We needn't wait. They already are.

The Senate and House have both, this month, passed legislation, known as SESTA/FOSTA, which purports to protect victims of sex trafficking by holding online companies liable for prostitution advertisements and information on their platforms. This means that sex workers (real ones, not trafficked slaves) can no longer do their work as publicly as they once could, increasing the level of danger for them, for their clients, and anyone else connected to the business of prostitution.

Allow me to say all of this differently: The United States government has decided that they have the right not only to control and censor speech online, but also to hold third parties (platforms) legally responsible for said speech.

And they did it “for the children.”

Privacy Awareness

Over the last couple of weeks, the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook and data collection has made the public painfully aware of just how much data online companies have on you, and how that data can be collected and utilized by third parties. There has been massive outcry concerning the data collection practices of Facebook, but to what end?

I submit that no one really cares. Sure, a vocal minority may be up-in-arms about the way their data is collected and handled, but they don’t actually know, or want to know, or care to find out, just how deep the big data rabbit hole goes. People can be angry about this one company selling Facebook-sourced data profiles to another company, but do they actually understand that this kind of business comprises the majority of monetization methods for online companies? I don’t think they do. But why does this matter?
Because, in the United States, Supreme Court case law basically states that the only contexts in which a citizen has a constitutional right to privacy are those contexts in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is, obviously, subject to change based on social attitudes toward where people expect to have privacy and where they do not. The attitude is rapidly shifting in the direction of “you have no expectation of privacy online.” Now, depending on how this is applied, everything from your emails to your phone calls could be considered to be “online.” At that point, the Fourth Amendment no longer applies. Now imagine how this mentality will continue, if it does continue, with regard to digital assistants like Amazon’s Echo or the Google Home. An always-on, always-online box sitting there in your living room. As “online” continues to encroach on our living spaces and daily conversations, how does the expectation of privacy adapt?

My guess: Not well.

What privacy could we expect the government to respect if they, hypothetically, established a secret court that had the right to compel these companies to turn over data and documents regarding your online activities?

FISA Court

They already do that, too.

The absolutely-not-hypothetical FISA court is a secret court originally established in 1978 to provide surveillance warrants to federal agencies so that they could surveil foreign agents in the US. Post-9/11, post PATRIOT Act world the FISA court is one of the single most corrupting forces in american life. Federal agencies like the NSA and FBI request that the FISA court allow them to spy not only on foreign agents, but also on american citizens with broad, sweeping operations. One such operation, revealed by Edward Snowden, required that a Verizon subsidiary provide the NSA with a daily feed of all calls made on the network, including domestic calls, and the metadata attached to those calls.

Including. Domestic. Calls.

And you don’t have to imagine a hypothetical where agencies get FISA warrants for data collected by social media sites. It already happens.

The Slippery Slope

I hear the chorus of voices belonging to the thousands, maybe millions, who claim that it can’t happen here. They shout, “But Dean-O, you’re making a Slippery Slope argument! That’s a fallacy!”

You are allowed to think that. You are allowed to ignore the mountains of evidence from all across human history that the Slippery Slope is less a fallacy than a fact. You are allowed to maintain your faith that your government will always respect your liberties, your rights. You are allowed to do all of that.

I prefer to be realistic. I know that, as these powers expand and the people accept them, the anarchists will be somewhere on the list of people to be silenced. My friends and I, peaceful people who want nothing more than to see a society that no longer has to suffer under the jackbooted promise of present and impending oppression, will be on that list.

And after me, who knows? Maybe you’re on that list, too.