Privacy and freedom of expression

What does privacy have to do with freedom of expression?

At first glance, you might think, absolutely nothing. You might even think that they are opposite ideas. After all, privacy means keeping things to yourself, right? Expression, meanwhile, means saying things out loud. If you wanted something to be private, why would you go around blabbing about it?

This is the way I used to think about privacy and FOE myself… until, that is, I actually thought about it.

In the age of digital surveillance, privacy is becoming increasingly important. But it’s always been a commodity. When you purchase a web domain, for example, you can pay extra to have your personal contact information hidden from the prying eyes of the world. Phone companies used to charge extra for unlisted numbers. The first thing people do when they become wealthy is build large houses far away from the teeming hordes. Many of us daydream about vacations to exotic paradises where we might not see another soul.

Yes, yes, you hysterical leftie Commie pinko bastard, we get it, you might be saying to yourself right about now. But what does privacy have to do with freedom of expression?

The connection is this: you will not feel free to express yourself in what you write, read, think, or believe if you have the sense that you are being watched. One of the first things oppressive governments do to dissidents is remove their privacy. They read their mail, they put cameras in their home, they track their movements. It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. If you remove privacy, you curtail FOE, and perhaps even choke it to death.

In resolution 68/167, in which the UN declares privacy to be a universal human right, we see this:

…the exercise of the right to privacy is important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference, and is one of the foundations of a democratic society…

In other words, if you don’t have privacy, you don’t have FOE, and if you don’t have FOE, chances are very good you haven’t got any privacy, either.

It’s always dangerous to become complacent about freedom of expression. In the so-called “developed world”, where so many are complacent, people may criticize you for speaking up about it, saying that obviously your free speech isn’t threatened if you can complain about not having it. Those people are overlooking the privacy issue. When privacy is encroached upon by the government, freedom of expression is under direct attack. And if you live in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–any of the “Five Eyes” nations–your privacy is currently being violated through digital surveillance as a result of intelligence-sharing agreements.

So, yes, even though I am free to bitch as loudly as I want on my website, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or in the Toronto Star, about the threat posed to freedom of expression without being dragged off to prison by jackbooted thugs, that doesn’t mean FOE isn’t in danger. The more of our privacy we lose, the greater that danger becomes.

Sound paranoid? I used to think so, too… until I heard about a fella named Edward Snowden.