Well it finally happened. Donald Trump, not content with merely mocking reporters, calling for the deportation of Muslim-Americans, and erecting walls along the American border, has a new target in his crosshairs: the Internet.
Recently, during a gathering of his supporters in South Carolina, Trump had this to say about how best to secure the American homeland:
“We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet. We have to do something. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some ways.”
All in all, it is hard to decipher what is worse: Trump’s overt lack of awareness of how something so enmeshed with society, like the Internet, works (apparently Bill Gates is the gatekeeper), or his proud disregard for values like free speech and tolerance—values which have helped make America truly great.
Inane as this “proposal” is, what he said next was even more worrying:
“Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people. We have a lot foolish people.”
Those pesky defenders of the First Amendment—how dare they? Of course coming from Trump, these comments seem almost benign (a recurring joke making the rounds on the Internet sums it up best: Donald Trump is what would happen if the online comments section became a human and ran for president). Unfortunately, this perspective is not unique to Trump.
Hillary Clinton, also responding to the recent terrorist attacks, said the following:
“You’re going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we’ve got to shut off their means of communicating. It’s more complicated with some of what they do on encrypted apps, and I’m well aware of that, and that requires even more thinking about how to do it.”
So there it is. Freedom of speech is nothing but a pesky complaint in the face of terrorism. Because if we’re going to win a war waged against spectral abstractions, we definitely need to disregard “the usual complaints” about civil liberties.
Unfortunately for all of us, these types of remarks seem to be gaining traction among potential voters. Privacy and surveillance, civil liberties, and online security protocols (like encryption) are all targets ripe for assailing in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, as well as a long, wet, hot cybersecurity summer filled with data breaches and hacks at Sony, OPM, Ashley Madison, and elsewhere. Rarely have our our online privacy and our ability to defend ourselves from cybercriminals been so precariously situated. And shame on us all for allowing it to come to this.
After all, America was birthed, in part, from the colonists’ distaste for the general warrants executed by the overweening hand of the British state. One was free to speak his or her mind, as long as it wasn’t in opposition to the Crown. And even the Founding Fathers used ciphers to encrypt their messages—not just during the Revolutionary War, but also after the nation’s independence. These issues all have their beginnings in contributing to the founding of our nation. But now the dialogue has changed.
Now we see FBI director James Comey demanding that technology companies “change their business models” and stop offering strong, secure encryption to consumers. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr have made it clear that they will seek legislation to weaken encryption. Commenting on a separate bill mandating social media firms to report on their users, Burr said: “This is light in comparison to what the reaction and the remedy is going to be for encryption.” Senators Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, and Marco Rubio penned an oped last week that called for a return of the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata collection program ended by the USA FREEDOM Act. And, to top it all off, we now have the two frontrunners in the presidential race waving away concerns over these “usual complaints” about our rapidly evaporating civil liberties.
Donald Trump is right about one thing: we do have a lot of foolish people. Unfortunately, at least one of them is running for President.
Op-ed by Ryan Hagemann; originally published in the Huffington Post