Law in the Internet Society

Recycling Ideas

-- By LiliAbascal - 31 Dec 2012

“Citizens in a free society must have courage – the courage to hear not only unwelcome political speech but novel and shocking ideas in science and the arts”
(Anthony Lewis)


Surveillance, once mainly associated with totalitarian regimes, is now heavily performed by democratic governments and corporations as well. Intrusion into the lives of individuals had never been easier. Thanks to technological improvements surveillance is becoming more pervasive and more effective. Very precise and comprehensive data is being collected. In general, it’s very easy and cheap to monitor people’s behavior, interests, viewpoints, likes and activities.

According to David Lyon, surveillance is “monitoring of the behavior, activities, or other changing information, usually of people for the purpose influencing, managing, directing, or protecting". Hence the main function of surveillance is to obtain information (to collect data) in order to be able to successfully influence, manage, direct, or protect the watched subject.

Privacy and Freedom of Expression

As surveillance increases privacy diminishes, and with it, freedom of expression becomes jeopardized. Privacy is central to the maintenance of democratic societies and reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression.

Neil M. Richards describes in a very clear way the link between privacy and freedom of expression. He says that surveillance harms what he calls “intellectual privacy”. For him, “intellectual privacy” is “the idea that new ideas often develop best away from the intense scrutiny of public exposure that people should be able to make up their minds at times and places of their own choosing, and that a meaningful guarantee of privacy – protection from surveillance or interference – is necessary to promote this kind of intellectual freedom&#8221. This author argues that surveillance is menacing foundational commitments to intellectual diversity and eccentric individuality that endangers freedom of speech. According to him, freedom of thought rests at the core of the American justifications for freedom of speech (“After all, for protections of speaking to be useful, it is important to ensure that speakers have something interesting to say”), and freedom of thought is based on the premise that free citizens should be able to make up their minds for themselves, what requires a minimum of protection of individual rights and social practices of thinking and reading and private communications, among others. In the words of the author: "Protection of these individual and social practices allows us to develop both intellectual diversity and eccentric individuality".

Not Reading Alone Anymore

Data collection happens all the time in the web. All our movements (searches, purchases, clicks) are tracked and stored by private companies with commercial purposes. We have reached a point in which it is not exaggerated to say, as Alexandra Alter puts it, that “Your e-book is reading you”. Thanks to data collection search engines and newspaper sites, for example, are capable of personalizing the results and recommendations of each search according to the user’s own preferences, based on its previous searches and movements. Furthermore, in recent years, with the rise of e-books, companies can track how people are reading, analyzing among other things, the time spent reading, how far readers get in particular books, which are the most highlighted phrases, and how readers of particular genres engage with books.

Freedom of Thought?

One of the consequences of all data gathering is that as time passes by we are receiving “custom made” information and products (books for example), information that “best suits us”, but that does not necessarily challenge us or allows us to confront our own ideas. New information will allow us to reinforce our own points of view, without allowing us to confront them. At the same time, innovation and creativity will be threatened, as authors and creators will have to limit their creations to what supposedly consumers want.

A good example of the aforesaid is that Barnes and Noble is starting to share the information collected from its customers, while they read their e-books, with publishers “to help them create books that better hold people’s attention”.

I find particularly preoccupying the fact that this entire data gathering to customize information or entertainment will create a vicious circle in which people will be given what they want, but they will keep asking form more of the same because they do not know anything else. It will affect our ability to debate and will segregate different social groups as people will only receive what “they like” or what better suits them, so it will become more difficult to understand people that think different to them. It is also very distressing that diversity will be badly affected, and innovation and creativity, two fundamental elements of progress, will be hindered. Since editors, producers or investors will have more accurate data of what consumers want or how do they consume each product, creators will be forced (more than ever) to adapt their works to popular demands, what will discriminate against controversial or unpopular topics, as well as limit the creativity of its creator. Furthermore, there’s evidence that surveillance creates self-censorship, and that under surveillance, individuals are inclined to make choices that conform to mainstream expectations, what besides directly attempting versus freedom of expression, also harms diversity and innovation.

If we want to defend innovation, freedom of thought and thus freedom of speech, and all the benefits that surround them, we need to start by defending our privacy. As history has taught us, the defense has to be from the bottom to the top. We have to realize that change belongs to us. Besides traditional means of resistance such as getting organized, raising our voices and stop consuming programs that abuse our privacy, we shall also take advantage of technology. In the same way technology can be used in an intrusive way, it can be used in a way to protect our movements and privacy. Technology allows us to encrypt our information and there's free software, which provides the same functions (and many times much better ones) of commercial software, without attempting against our privacy. As it is well known, there's no better way to preach than with our own example. If we want society to change each of us need to change. We have to start giving up on intrusive products and start using more free software and encrypting our information. But we need to go beyond simply being passive users of the software. We have to overcome the general apathy to learn how to program and to have everything done for us, so that we can become active creators of software. It's also imperative to make more people aware of the benefits that we as society will achieve if we start adopting the proposed changes. The more of us start to change, the greater the collective benefit will be. With all these changes we will not only protect our privacy but we will also enhance and democratize freedom of speech and innovation.


Alter, Alexandra. "Your e-book is Reading You". The Wall Street Journal US Edition. July 19, 2012 (accessed December 10, 2012).

Electronic Frontier Foundation et al. "Draft International Principles on Communications, Surveillance and Human Rights".

Lewis, Anthony. "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, a Biography of the First Amendment". MJF Books. New York, 2007.

Richards, Neil. "The Dangers of Surveillance". Harvard Law Review.

"Surveillance" in Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia Retrieved December 20, 2012, from

I agree with the ideas expressed here, of course, seeing that wherever they are attributed here they are all expressed in the "Why Freedom of Thought Requires Free Media, and Why Free Media Require Free Software" talk given in Berlin last March, which I assigned as watching for you in October. I think you do a fine job expressing all of this succinctly. You are communicating the message clearly. But it would be an improvement to have you take the ideas further, not limiting yourself to staying within the previously-articulated bounds. For example, how do you propose that we should defend our privacy, on which you are in agreement that our freedom of thought depends? Maybe even, how do you propose to do something yourself to defend our privacy?


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r5 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:50 - EbenMoglen
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