Technology and Personal Freedom

Article excerpt

In 1949 George Orwell published his famous 1984, a book in which he warned of the dangers of technology. (1) He envisioned a world in which Big Brother was able to use technology to monitor and shape people's thoughts and actions, enabling societal control and the suppression of personal freedom. In January 1984 Apple Computer ran its famous commercial introducing the Macintosh computer: A series of drone-like people were seen marching into a hall where Big Brother exhorted them on a large computer screen. Suddenly, a young woman in a tank top and shorts ran into the room, twirling and throwing a large sledgehammer as if in an athletic competition, and destroyed the image of Big Brother. The voice-over told people that the introduction of the "Mac" would be why 1984 would not be 1984. (2) Clearly Apple saw its technology and the personal computer as liberating. This may be a case of moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, but Orwell's book and Apple's advertisement reflect a long time debate--is technology liberating or enslaving? This debate arises periodically with the introduction of new technology. For example, in 1811 English textile workers known as the Luddites protested the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt threatened to enslave them.

The question of whether the Internet promotes democracy is an aspect of that debate. Many see the Internet as promoting freedom of expression and giving individuals a powerful and easily accessible means of reciprocal communication. The Internet is viewed as having been created as a protection mechanism--difficult to shut down in a nuclear attack--and a hallmark of government inability to suppress Internet communication. Others, however, point out that while suppression may be difficult the tracking of individual postings is relatively easy. This counter-argument notes that people communicate with their personal computers much more candidly than how they otherwise would, failing to acknowledge that the tools for tracking postings on the Interact are numerous, powerful and easily accessible. Monitoring of individual expression has never been easier.

The reality is that the Internet--like all technology--is neither inherently liberating nor enslaving. It is a tool that is capable of either or both, depending on how it is used by individuals and governments, and how it is regulated. Again, there are parallels in history. In the 17th century, the relatively new proliferation of printing presses allowed people the ability to produce pamphlets that criticized the government. The response was often seizure of the presses and subsequent government censorship. Over time, this came to be seen in our society as inappropriate government action and freedom of the press became a cornerstone of democracy.

Let us look at how our society deals with freedom of speech on the Internet. Freedom of speech is, of course, a core value of our society and it is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication". (3) As a society, we encourage people to share their views on the Internet. However, we have many laws that impose reasonable restrictions on that freedom. We do not allow people to use the Charter as a shield if they are promoting racial hatred or terrorism, or if they are seeking to lure children into sexual traps. Yet it is no secret that all of these activities are carried out daily on the Internet and that our governments wish to halt these practices. They point out that the people who seek to carry out these activities without prosecution have developed techniques to maintain their anonymity and disseminate their ideas. As a result, our governments have developed many tools to track what a person says and/or does on the Internet. These tools are continually being developed to track down perpetrators of hate crimes, pedophiles and terrorists. …