Here in the United States, it’s 4th of July weekend. This is when we celebrate our independence from Britain in 1776, typically by stuffing our faces with burgers and hot dogs (and beer, if you drink) and blowing up a lot of fireworks. I don’t define myself as a patriotic person – at least, not in the traditional sense – but it is a lot of fun. Unless you own a dog or other pet who doesn’t like fireworks. Fortunately my cats seem to do well, so other than a few unexpected moments of “was that a gunshot, car backfire, or firework?” in the days leading up to the day in question, it’s basically just a long weekend for me with an excuse to get together with my friends and set off some fireworks in the street.
However, this also seems like a good excuse to talk about freedom. Let me be the first to say that I don’t think that America is the best country in the world by a long shot. I do think that whether through my actions or by my birthright (probably a mix of both), I do enjoy both a high standard of living and a great degree of freedom compared to many other parts of the world. However, I am under no delusions. I know that 1) this is largely luck – being born in the right place at the right time to the right family with the right skin color that I was afforded many of the opportunities I have been and am, and 2) there is much to be done still. America is a much better place to live than many other places, but we’re far from perfect by almost any measure. That includes freedom.
As an American who was of conscious age on September 11, 2001, I have watched the freedoms of my people be stripped away more and more with each passing year. I am glad to have seen some freedoms equalized and restored – marriage rights, decriminalization of certain “crimes” like marijuana and sex work, etc. But I have also watched as our overall freedoms as a whole have been disintegrated subtly, slowly chipped away piece by piece in exchange for… something. Shoshana Zuboff calls this “The Dispossession Cycle” in her now-legendary book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” In it, she describes how companies slowly encroach upon our data and even our AFK (away-from-keyboard) lives. If caught, they simply move around the obstacle with a different approach, like a river moving around a rock. And they move slowly, strategically, in ways that acclimate us to the violations like the proverbial frog boiling in water.
It reminds me of a song from the (highly underrated, in my opinion) band Wolves At The Gate: “One was the deal before but now I want three/So if you want to get your fix you’ll have to agree/Don’t you fret now, don’t you fear, you’ve still got much to give/I’ll keep my word if you keep yours; you still need me to live.” This song (called “The Bird and the Snake,” for those who couldn’t/didn’t view the link) is about drug addiction, but it’s hard to read that verse and not think of how Big Tech has seduced us, co-opted our lives and redirected our dependencies onto them the same way an engineer might redirect the canals of a nearby river to irrigate local crops. Have you ever told someone they should delete Facebook? The shock in their eyes is akin to a drug addict: “you still need me to live.”
An old one-panel comic shows two friends sitting on a couch. The corner narration reads “life before Google.” One friend says “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replies “That’s a damn shame.” I once asked my mom “what did we do before Google? I honestly can’t even remember.” She replied “libraries,” to which I thought “oh. Duh.” I spent HOURS there as a child pre-internet. How could I have forgotten the critical role libraries played in my own life? We have become so accustomed to life now that we’ve forgotten that life existed long before Amazon, before TikTok, before Instagram. And it is to their benefit that we have done so. Here at Decentralize Today – and on my own news feed – we regularly share stories of the slow encroachment of Big Tech into our lives. I recently shared a story about how police in one neighborhood announced that they had bought a surveillance droned and planned to implement it - but they hadn’t even finished the rules and policies surrounding what it would be used for and what was off limits. Could you imagine? We share stories about companies normalizing facial recognition to prevent crime, stores using biometrics to check people for possible COVID symptoms, and retailers trying to suck up more and more data so they can sell you more products, predict your purchases, make your life easier and more convenient. Sure, these are all nice and well-intentioned, but how long can we trust them? Big Tech has repeatedly proven that if we give them an inch, they take a mile (The Dispossession Cycle) and numerous incidents throughout the past have shown that the data they collect – ostensibly to make our lives easier and protect us – can be abused: Cambridge Analytica, rogue employees, data breaches leading to identity theft, stalking and murders from public records and social media. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we’re giving up our data – which is essentially part of us – to build that highway. Liberty is being stripped away in the name of safety and convenience. I hate to sound like a gun-toting right-wing extremist, but they’re not wrong about that part.
The water is already boiling. I often cite a study from 2016 that found that when people know they’re under surveillance, they behave differently. The headline says “mass surveillance breeds meekness, fear, and self-censorship.” Another study found that Facebook is capable of manipulating elections if they wanted to. According to a government watchdog agency, Facebook and Amazon were among the top twenty biggest spenders on government lobbying in 2020, with Google and several other privacy-invasive companies like AT&T (who was among the first to agree to the NSA’s PRISM program) and Comcast being present on that list in recent years. That means that surveillance is already shaping our government and laws. The US doesn’t have any kind of national data protection regulations. The much-lauded California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) was written explicitly to exempt government agencies. Many of the other state laws that are popping up are vague in addressing government restrictions – if any exist at all – and only some of them even offer consumers any independent recourse (like the ability to sue the company directly without involving the government). It’s shaping our culture, with popular memes like “The FBI man in my phone watching me do stuff” and targeted advertising. We make light of these things because we feel powerless. We don’t know what to do. Amazon spends more before lunch bribing the government to ignore worker’s rights than I’ve made pre-tax in my entire life. How can we possible compete against that? How can we protect our freedom against those so determined to take it away from us and control us; telling us what to buy, even what to think?
Privacy. This is why privacy means so much to me, personally. There are a thousand responses to the ever-infuriating “nothing to hide” argument. What will convince a person varies, as people are different. They have different values and different concerns. Me personally? I place a heavy emphasis on individual freedom. You should be free to be whoever you want to be and believe whatever you want to believe (so long as it’s not hurting anyone), whether I agree with you or not, and privacy is how we ensure that freedom. Protecting our data means protecting our freedom: freedom to choose what to buy, freedom to choose what to think and what to believe, what ideas to engage with, what brands to support, what political ideas to endorse, what to research and what to learn, rather than to have all of this fed to you buy a machine who only wants to sell more ad space. This is because our data is practically us. When you learn enough about a person, you basically know them. So privacy, to me, is freedom. And much like America, there is room to improve. There is room for more freedom. But privacy is how I protect the freedom I have.
As I said, the water is boiling. We are living in an age where privacy is being vilified, and where companies are more and more interested in not only knowing you but controlling you – again, ostensibly to serve up more ads. But whether it’s for your own good or not, I believe that control is not something anyone should have over you except for you. Whether it’s self-destructive or healthy, only you should be allowed to make your choices for you, not some algorithm being paid to sell you the latest product or a politician buying your vote. You deserve the freedom to make those choices yourself, and privacy is how you can get that freedom back. It’s not too late to turn down the temperature of the water and dial things back, but it will take effort. One step at a time. A popular patriotic slogan in the US says that “freedom isn’t free,” referring to the countless troops who have died in service to the country but this applies to the freedom of digital privacy, too. Stopping the control and abuse of your data will mean giving up some of your “creature comforts.” You’ll miss out on some memes. You’ll not be informed about some shows. You may have to – god forbid – actively text someone to ask how they’re doing rather than having social media serve up the latest picture of their life to you. And you'll definitely have to consciously decide what news to seek out. But you can’t put a price on that kind of freedom, the freedom of knowing that you’re in control of your own destiny. That, to me, is what privacy is all about. Privacy is freedom, from Big Tech and their mind-controlling ads and from the abuses and incompetence of my government.
If you live in the US, happy 4th of July. If you don’t, happy 4th of July. No matter where you are, you deserve freedom and you can get some of it back. I urge you to do so. Privacy is freedom.