Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Liberty from London: We’re all civil-libertarians now

There are times when one is forced to wonder what it is that makes the average man in the street tick, what it is which motivates him, has the power to impel him to act.

The past month in Britain has been no different. If the newspapers were to be believed we’re all privacy hawks now, outraged at the encroachment upon our right to go about our business unmolested and unsurveilled.

And you might very well say, ‘Excellent’, the people have seen what 12 years of socialism in Britain has wrought. They’re standing athwart history and yelling ‘STOP’ to the State. ‘This far, and no further, and frankly, back up a bit’. Only, they aren’t. The issue which has motivated Britons isn’t the erosion of our civil liberties. It isn’t the neutering of the Mother of all Parliaments. It’s Google StreetView.

Within hours of its launch, indignant citizens were contacting the press, writing letters to editors, emailing their Members of Parliament, plotting legal challenges, forcing the removal of images and generally spluttering with foam-flecked indignation at the audacity of Google to publish some hazy images of their street, and just about identifiable people.

Surely, your holiday snaps – posted to MySpace, Facebook, Flickr et al, are really no more a threat to liberty than StreetView is. And so I’m at a loss to understand what it is that has enraged Britons about it. We have a government which is building ever more databases, at ever greater expense to the taxpayer. They even want to store our phone calls, emails and Facebook messages. Yet this government has a history of failing to abide by any notion of data security – having lost, at some point, just about every record it’s kept. These centralised databases are open to countless state employees who can, at the click of a button, pry into your most personal data. Thanks to our complicity in the European Union federalist agenda this data is soon to be shared with over 500 agencies and bodies across the continent.

If that wasn’t heinous enough, Britain is home to a quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras, 32 of which are within 200 yards of George Orwell’s home. Our government is pushing ahead relentlessly with personal identification cards, claiming they will make us more secure and guard against terrorism, whilst we know they can’t. That same government has allowed councils to invoke anti-terrorism legislation to spy on our trash can habits.

(“Those who would sacrifice a little liberty in return for a little security deserve neither liberty nor security.”)

And yet for all this, Britons are most outraged by a private sector company posting a synthesis of photos and maps. The crushing irony – which once again proves why government should be as small as possible and why the private sector trumps the public sector every time – is that Google has listened to Britons and removed offending images. The British government has ‘listened’ to the British people and utterly disregarded what it’s heard, because unlike Google it’s virtually unaccountable.

If this episode has taught us anything it’s that the British people have more than sufficient capacity to rise up and hold power to account. In opposing StreetView they’ve done everything that we activists ever ask of them – they’ve made some noise, in every medium conceivable. Yet their motivation seems obscure. If we could just channel their moral indignation into attacks on the real threats to liberty we might yet have freedom in our time.

Edward Hallam is co-editor of TheYoungConservative.

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