Democracy is a messy, complicated process accompanied by manageable yet constant social disorder. Americans tolerate that disorder because they intuitively understand it as a necessary precondition for progress. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is clean, simple, and immediately effective so long as the people in charge have the necessary resources to squash any resistance they might encounter. It is for that reason that even democratic societies will voluntarily endure small doses of authoritarian governance during times of crisis.
Once the threat posed by COVID-19 became clear, federal, state, and local government officials began taking actions that they’d never get away with under normal circumstances, such as restricting travel to and from foreign nations, ordering non-essential businesses to close their doors, and shutting down schools. And most Americans were willing to go along with those decisions. We understood that there wasn’t enough time to let the normal democratic processes play themselves out. We couldn’t afford to wait for our elected representatives to debate the merits of statewide lockdowns while the virus snaked its way through our shopping malls, churches, movie theaters, and restaurants. We asked the government to do what needed to be done to keep casualties to a minimum, and that’s exactly what we got.
Public opinion has recently started to shift, putting pressure on some governors to begin easing restrictions on businesses and opening certain public venues. But before that shift, America briefly transformed into an assemblage of quasi-authoritarian cities and states, and it mostly worked out in our favor. It should come as no great surprise, then, that we’re starting to hear from people who believe that the country could benefit from a more permanent shift towards authoritarianism.
One such argument was put forth by Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard, and Andrew Keane Woods, a law professor at the University of Arizona, in a piece published last weekend in Atlantic Magazine. Their argument revolves around the idea that a “mature and flourishing internet” demands greater government regulation of online speech and extensive monitoring of internet users’ activities. And they point to China’s infamous surveillance networks and oppressive limits on speech as models for the U.S. to follow.
“In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong,” they claim. “Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.”
This argument isn’t just wrong; it’s also borderline immoral. That’s an assertion I make sincerely, though not without some hesitation. It isn’t my intention to portray Goldsmith and Woods as villainous actors, nor do I believe that their motivations are in any way sinister. Nevertheless, what they are doing here is laying out a case for privacy-invading policies that enable the morally indefensible practices of authoritarian regimes like the Chinese Communist Party.
The CCP’s penchant for surveillance has helped it to track, terrorize, and imprison innocent Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, while it’s penchant for censorship has helped limit its own citizenry’s exposure to the truth about the atrocities being committed against the Uyghurs currently detained inside Chinese reeducation camps. Additionally, social media users caught criticizing or mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping or sharing foreign press reports that reflect poorly on the CCP are routinely arrested on trumped up charges, a tactic that critics say is meant to intimidate Chinese citizens into thinking twice before speaking out against the despotic regime in Beijing.
The professors’ defenders might counter that American citizens would never let their government go as far as the CCP, but history tells us otherwise. From the internment of innocent Japanese Americans during the second World War to the indefinite detention of innocent Muslims after 9/11, we have at times been inclined to turn a blind eye to abuses of government power carried out in response to extraordinary circumstances. There is no reason to think it can’t or won’t happen again. And if it does happen again, citizens and journalists alike must be free to report on it, discuss it, and speak out against it without fear of persecution or reprisal, which is precisely why we simply cannot trust our government with the same surveillance and speech-restricting powers the CCP has claimed for itself.
Logically, the professors’ argument makes two notable mistakes. The more obvious of the two is the implication that the lack of outrage over the existing surveillance state in the U.S. is evidence that the American public has already consented to more expansive government surveillance networks and increased restrictions on internet speech.
There is no denying that the budding relationship between the government and private sector tech companies has opened an Orwellian window into the formerly private lives of millions of American citizens. The professors helpfully supply us with a few illustrative examples of this, such as law enforcement’s growing reliance on DNA databases and Silicon Valley’s ever-expanding collection of smartphone users’ personal information. But poll after poll has shown that while many Americans have come to accept a lack of privacy as one of the costs of internet access, they are not the least bit happy about it. And they most certainly don’t trust either private sector companies or the government with their personal data.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last June, 81% of American adults believe that the potential risks of private sector data collection outweigh the benefits, while 66% say the same about government data collection. Nearly 80% say they are somewhat or very concerned about how the private sector uses the data it collects, while 64% say the same about the government. An Axios-SurveyMonkey poll from last year also found that a majority of Americans agree that there is an online privacy “crisis,” while a Reuters/Ipsos poll from 2017 found that most Americans would not voluntarily share their private emails, text messages, or phone records with government officials even if that information could help stop a terrorist attack.
So yes, most Americans have begrudgingly agreed to sacrifice some of their online privacy and abide by private platforms’ rules against certain kinds of speech. But does that mean they are prepared to sacrifice even more of their online privacy? Judging by the aforementioned polls, the most likely answer would appear to be no.
The professors also never address the possibility that the lack of public outrage on the issues of digital privacy and online speech may be at least partly attributable to the fact that there are still ways for American citizens to opt out of various forms of government surveillance, data collection, and speech regulations. For those of us who don’t want tech companies keeping track of our internet searches, there are search engines like DuckDuckGo and Startpage. If you’re concerned about how online marketplaces like Amazon collect and utilize your data, and you happen to live in a big city or suburb, there should be no shortage of brick and mortar stores in your area that would be quite grateful for your business. Got a laptop with a built-in webcam and don’t want anyone peeking in on you? A piece of tape should do the trick. Worried about whether the government is reading your email? ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email service launched in 2014, may be just what you need. And if Twitter and Facebook are a little too censorious for you, there are myriad private forums and message boards dedicated to upholding the spirit of free expression.
But if we ever do adopt China’s approach to online censorship and user monitoring, there will be no opting out—at least, not for most Americans. The ones who might find ways to evade the watchful eyes of Big Brother are those with advanced technical skills that the average citizen does not possess. The rest of us would spend most of out time peering over our digital shoulders, deleting tweets that might be taken the wrong way, and clearing cookies from our browsers every five or ten minutes. It would be a most unpleasant world in which to live.
To justify the existence of that world, Goldsmith and Woods cite the government’s purported obligation “to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.” This is a bizarre idea, and one that is extraordinarily difficult to defend. There are times when a society’s norms and values are in dire need of an upgrade, and those are the times when we should be most grateful for a government that lacks the authority to silence the voices of those advocating for a much-needed change of course. Had history played out differently—had our nation’s founders embraced the notion that the government should seek to stamp out arguments, opinions, and ideas that are incompatible with the norms and values of the eras to which they belong—it may have taken many more decades to resolve debates over propositions that we now accept as self-evidently true, such as the proposition that women should enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, including the right to vote.
The internet, like democracy, is messy. Social media is infested with trolls, cyberbullying is rampant, data breaches are much too common, and disinformation campaigns are becoming routine occurrences. We probably can’t solve all of these issues without some assistance from the government, but that acknowledgement shouldn’t be interpreted as an open call for Chinese-style oppression. The public’s tolerance for Big Brother’s antics is already wearing thin. Push them any further, and that tolerance may very well run out.