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In January, the Iranian government warned opposition groups that it was monitoring their emails and text messages, looking for people who might be organising protests. In the same week, Google declared that Chinese hackers had accessed Gmail and that they were reconsidering their position in China. Both incidents highlight what has become of fundamental importance for the protection of free speech today: the safeguarding of privacy.
Anyone who uses email, searches for information online or belongs to a social network is surrendering private information about themselves that is open to abuse. In her revealing interview for Index with David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, Rebecca MacKinnon asks whether Google has taken the question of privacy seriously enough. She makes the novel suggestion that Google should start treating its users ‘more like citizens of [a] place rather than users or customers. In order to gain people’s trust … does there not need to be a new kind of thinking?’ Gus Hosein echoes MacKinnon’s concerns in his article on political surveillance and points out that modern telecommunications systems ‘are designed with backdoors to enable state surveillance. … We need to renew our safeguards for privacy as a political right’.
Some of the world’s leading authorities on technology and free speech have contributed to this special issue of Index, and their observations and insights are of concern to us all. Censorship has not died – as internet pioneers once predicted – it has been reborn. Not only does the internet make it possible for authoritarian regimes to monitor their citizens’ activities as never before, it has also made censorship acceptable, and even respectable, in democracies.
Politicians and policy-makers call for filtering and blocking in the name of child protection, counter-terrorism and intellectual property. In the face of new technology, transparency and democratic accountability appear to
Internet cafe, Hefei, Anhui Province, China, 1 July 2009 Credit: Jianan Yu/Reuters