When it comes to any free speech debate, there always comes a point when someone inadvertently argues that free speech is too dangerous to defend. They’ll say that being too permissive can cause dangerous outcomes. The debate over Internet freedoms is no different. According to some of the world’s leaders, it’s too risky to let the Internet exist as it has since its inception, because terrorists have learned to use it for evil. They want to restrict it for our own good. These people should be vigorously opposed.
During the presidential election, Donald Trump said we need to start “closing parts of the Internet,” because ISIS is using the Internet to recruit people and organize attacks. “Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people,” Trump said. Trump is actually the foolish person here, because defending the First Amendment is never unwise, and his plan simply wouldn’t work.
It is not possible for the United States to start “closing parts of the Internet” in the first place. We don’t have that power. The Internet is a global network that connects many countries. So there’s that. Furthermore, whenever a government tries to restrict the Internet, people find ways around it. Just look at how Chinese activists have been able to get around the country’s “Great Firewall.” If you try to restrict one part of the Internet, people will just find a way to operate on another part or get around the technology that’s trying to block them.
Trump isn’t the only one who has proposed restricting the Internet in the name of safety. British Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed heavily regulating the Internet to combat terrorism. “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the Internet,” her party’s election manifesto states. “We disagree.”
They want to be able to monitor everything citizens do and say on the Internet and shut down whatever they don’t like. Part of this involves giving the government “backdoor” access to all encrypted messages, which I’ve explained would make encryption almost useless many times before. If the government has an open door, anyone else can go through that door and get in.
Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, confirmed this for me recently. She said creating a backdoor to encryption can create more security problems than it solves. “You can’t really guarantee that a backdoor can only be used by good guys and not bad guys,” she said.
Another part of May’s plan would involve getting social media companies to root out “extremist” content on their platforms, which other western countries have also supported. That would involve the government and these companies privately deciding what constitutes extremist content and removing it, which could mean any number of pages the government doesn’t like could disappear.
“There’s no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes extremist content, so what could be considered extremist in one country may not be considered so in others,” Wong said. “Content might be taken down that is not actually leading to violence or leading to people being radicalized online.” In America, with a vengeful president like Donald Trump, you can easily imagine him trying to target his long list of enemies this way. Since extremism is so hard to define, he could theoretically say any number of groups that are fighting his policies are promoting extremism.
Aside from the reasons these policies wouldn’t work and that they’re concerning, consider what enacting such actions would mean for western societies: it would mean the terrorists win. It may sound cliché to say it, but it’s an unavoidable truth. If terrorists are able to dismantle our civil liberties through acts of violence, they will have accomplished a far higher goal than ending the lives of a small part of the population. They will have fundamentally damaged our freedoms by simply scaring us into submission.
Trump was right to mention freedom of speech, because restricting the Internet in this way would likely be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. It clearly states the government can “make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” However, we can’t simply become apathetic about this issue because we think the First Amendment can defend itself. Just look at how easily George W. Bush began dismantling the Fourth Amendment when he pushed through the Patriot Act. Citizens must persistently resist these attempts to grab power and control the populace.
As Naomi Klein explains in her new book No Is Not Enough, there is a long history of politicians using tragic events to justify passing extreme legislation. As I mentioned, Bush did it after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, and it’s been done many times before that. Citizens will often foolishly trade liberty for security when they feel unsafe. We have to be aware of this and not let politicians take advantage of these chaotic moments. That’s true in England, in America and everywhere else.
This is a dangerous time. It is not a dangerous time because it’s likely you’re going to be killed by a terrorist, because that is not the case. It is a dangerous time because fear mongering politicians like Donald Trump and Theresa May want to use the threat of terrorism to take away your rights. It’s time to tell them we’re not going to let that happen.