Why is the answer to *everything* more surveillance? Canadian Minister of Public Safety uses tabloid-ready murder to further plans for ending Internet privacy
A leading contender for the most disgusting news story of 2012 is the still-developing and very tawdry tale of Luka Magnotta. This self-styled denizen from the basement of the pornographic film world now sits in a German prison, awaiting extradition on charges of a nauseating murder in Montreal.
Among other acts of bewildering inhumanity, Mr. Magnotta allegedly filmed his entire crime and posted the footage to a site devoted to gore.
And it is this that has led a Canadian politician, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, to call for widespread surveillance of ordinary citizens on the Web. In truth, he is exploiting the horrific to push through a proposal that was already out there. Too often, the answer to any incident where a computer was even in the same room is shrill and ill-thought demands for a surveillance state. What this reflects is, at best, the mistaken belief that identification is a panacea in crime-fighting.
At worst, it the cynical willingness of politicians to exploit tragedy as a shortcut to stripping civil rights.
On the surface, Mr. Toews is disgusted that a murder could be filmed and posted online for the prurient edification of any who choose to watch. He claims to want to modernize obscenity laws in order to go after the site that hosted the video, and somehow makes the illogical leap to blanket online surveillance. Rather than calling for more rigorous enforcement of existing obscenity laws, the Minister ‘helpfully’ suggested that Bill C-30, an Orwellian mess that has already triggered a blacklash, would deal with the problem.
C-30, though, would require Canadian ISPs to record everything citizens do online and would give police greatly expanded powers, including allowing them access to the online records of innocent Canadians with neither judicial oversight nor probable cause. Advocating so extreme a step is, pardon the pun, overkill.
In fact, deliberately blurring the distinction between national security and free speech is a fundamental tool when we look at government attempts to wipe away civil rights. It is no accident that bids to pass draconian curbs on free expression and privacy are framed with such grisly and anomalous cases. No one will support the legalization of a surveillance state when presented with the enormous volume of perfectly legitimate web traffic that would be compromised, of the millions whose privacy would be needlessly sacrificed.
Instead, advocates of such laws falsely present online anonymity as a sea of pedophiles and terrorists.
One Canadian blogger elegantly parsed the situation, writing, “The Magnotta case does not demonstrate the need for lawful access, but rather shows how officials rely on sensationalist claims as they remain unable to muster convincing evidence of the need for the law.
Mr. Toews has alarming stated, “I don’t think that’s necessary…It doesn’t forward the interest of free speech at all.” What the man is so sorely missing is that free speech is not about what is necessary. It is, rather, about the idea that government cannot and ought not to be judging what is necessary at all. That any government official of a free nation would appoint himself the czar of what does and does not “forward the interest” of free speech is appalling.
What is in the interest of free speech is ensuring the government has no ability to regulate free speech. Giving the state an inch on regulating speech in the name of somehow upholding decency and standards is signing away the entire right of free expression. Holding up something as sick as what might be a genuine snuff film as if it represented the everyday of anonymous web activity is a dirty straw man.
Truthfully, the situation is messier than Mr. Toews would care to admit. Harsh laws intended to make it impossible to act anonymously online would have done nothing to prevent the murder and attendant sordid acts.
Mr. Toews might then argue that his proposals would have prevented or minimized the spread of the video purporting to show the murder. Such bans on anonymity are only effective against those who scrupulously adhere to published law or to those who care about getting away with what they’ve done. I suggest that someone willing to commit the murder Mr. Magnotto is accused of would not pay the least attention to a law banning anonymous posts. I also point out that his behavior leading up to his arrest makes one thing quite clear; this is a man who hungered for the attention; if anything, he always intended to be caught.
This belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use legal remedies to prevent or correct bad acts taking place online or with an online aspect. Banning anonymity won’t make anyone nicer. It won’t touch the deep seated and dark aspects of humanity. Of course it’s disgusting that there is an audience for stolen autopsy photos and footage of human beings suffering. It is also disgusting to witness politicians using outrage, perhaps feigned, at mankind’s lesser angels as an excuse to commit disgusting acts of their own.
What Mr. Toews adriotly avoid confronting is that an early viewer of the video contacted Canadian police, insisting the video was real and demanding investigation. The police wrote the footage off as nothing more than good special effects and took no action.
For at least a year before that, an international cadre of animal rights activists were trying to get Canadian authorities to take them seriously and look at a mound of evidence suggesting that Mr. Magnotta was responsible for a series of videos showing the torture, death, and mutilation of kittens. It was all to no avail.
Canada doesn’t need to turn the Web into a police state; they need to start doing their job with the laws they already have.
Let us give politicians the benefit of the doubt and presume they mean well; there is still the fact they they clearly don’t understand the way the Internet works. Let us imagine they get their way and make it illegal to act anonymously online. Are we now to imagine that every nation on the planet will comply with these harsh new rules? Are we also to pretend no black market will spring up?
Banning anonymity online will do nothing at all to curb what truly sick behavior that goes on. It will only drive illicit traffic to the Dark Web while exposing the honest and the good to mockery and needless scrutiny from the state.
Canada is in the midst of a parliamentary bid to annihilate online anonymity and give soaring powers to the state to surveil citizens in their every click. Lest you are tempted to write this off as the Canadians’ problem, you might like to know the bill, the aforementioned C-30, includes provisions for sharing the fruit of all this surveillance with the American government, something Washington is eager to see passed and to reciprocate.
SOPA is not dead, it’s resting. If SOPA was a bid to end privacy online in the name of stopping piracy, CISPA is the same bad idea masquerading as a national security effort. It has passed the House by a comfortable margin. And amendments to CALEA, an already expanded surveillance law ostensibly meant to aid law enforcement in limited and judicious investigation, are before the Senate.
The worst case scenario for Americans is that the Senate passes the expansion of CALEA, conferences in the worst of CISPA, inflicts the entire thing on us, and shares all our secrets with the Canadian government, where people like Vic Toews will go peeping through our business.
What you have heard about these proposals is likely framed with horror stories of child predators run amok, state secrets bandied about, and the general downfall of civilization. Privacy is presented as the necessary tradeoff for security. Those who resist baring their lives to the government are accused of having something to hide.
Some civil rights activists foolishly accept this dichotomy and make the doomed argument that we should be willing to put up with reduced security in the name of preserving privacy and dignity.
I call this a doomed argument because what is based on bad reasoning can never be all that effective. Really, it ought to be clear to all of us that accusing those who value privacy of somehow wanting the terrorists to win or of secretly supporting human trafficking and sexual slavery is patently absurd.
Privacy and security are not opposed at all; there is no tradeoff. Giving up all our privacy won’t increase our security. We’ll be out one vital civil right and no safer for it. In fact, we’re likely to be less safe, with nowhere to hide from the state, living under the dangerous notion that privacy is about concealing wrongdoing and hiding shame rather than being a valid human need and a fundamental right.
Meanwhile, the state will be so busy sorting through tetrabytes of fluff or, more realistically, indulging decidedly lowbrow tastes as every civil servant digests the private lives of his neighbors, that real threats will go missed.
Let’s not judge the state’s motives, at least not here and now. Perhaps our elected representatives truly do think that knowing everything about everyone all the time is both possible and desirable.
In truth, it is neither. At best, we’d have lost a fundamental dignity in an enormous haystack of our online lives.
In this particular case, there is a disturbing parallel when a government minister exploits a tragedy and decries the public’s prurient tastes in order to resurrect an exploitative bill that would give a blank check to the most prurient tastes of the government.
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