Friday, November 16, 2012

Anonymity is Vital for Free Expression

Chances are, you have one of two reactions to the sentiment expressed in the title of this post. On the one hand, you might agree, realizing that people are only free to express their honest opinions when they do not fear reprisal, and the only way to ensure that condition is true anonymity. On the other hand, you may feel that a veil of secrecy damages civilized discussion, or makes it impossible to ensure everyone has an equal voice, or allows evil people to spread hateful and/or destructive speech without repercussion, or perpetrates some other societal evil. All points may be valid and accurate, yet free expression is vital to freedom, with all the downsides which come with it. To the point, I'll cite a recent example which was interesting to me.

The government (or more specifically, the executive branch of the US government) has a site where citizens can "sign" petitions to be addressed by the government. In the spirit of other petitions, to sign a petition means to include your [accurate] personal identification information, presumably so that you could be validated as a constituent represented ruled by the leaders rulers you were petitioning. Currently, there are many virtual petitions collecting signatures for various anti-government activities, the most media-popularized ones concerning succession from the US. The motivations of the signatories are no-doubt varied; some see succession as the only viable escape from the broken political system, others are simply frustrated with the current status, and still others just don't like the particular oppressors who happen to be in power.

Consider though, for a moment, the implications of signing such a petition. Already, there are "ideologically-competing" petitions, such as the one which asks the president to try any signatories for treason. Notwithstanding the legal dubiousness of that severe of retaliation, is it far-fetched to assume that signing a succession petition might attract some sort of attention? After all, it's common knowledge that the NSA/CIA has vast information-monitoring resources, already monitors all internet communications for "suspicious" activity, and can do the same with other electronic communication networks (cellular, etc.). The FBI executes hundreds of thousands of warrant-less searches of business information every year, tracks people with GPS without warrants, and searches and/or seizes your property at will. They also kept open files on anyone sighted at political protests (sometimes with active surveillance), and that was long before the capabilities of the digital information age.

Moreover, consider the secondary implications. As someone recently pointed out, signing such a petition might make you ineligible for a security clearance in the US. This might be acceptable, until or unless you are denied a job due to the prohibition. What if your name is entered into a government database of "suspicious" persons, and the next time you fly anywhere, the TSA pulls you out of line for an "enhanced" interview? Would evidence of seditious behavior be grounds to monitor your phone/internet? Might the FBI question your spouse, your friends, your children, your employer? If the government investigates you, will you still be employed? Will the police be less likely to believe your side of events if your name is in a federal database? All of these things should be considerations when you sign your name to something anti-government.

I'm not saying there are not valid reasons for demanding personal accountability for statements and/or petitions. I'm not saying any particular petitions have merit or not. I'm not saying that all the potential bad things which could happen to people signing such petitions will happen, or even are likely to happen. What I am saying, emphatically, is that regardless of my particular feelings on controversial issues, you will not find my real name on any government lists of people publicly opposed to the evils of our government. Admittedly it's a minor distinction, since it's easy enough for the government to discern my feelings about them from this blog alone, if they were so inclined, but that doesn't mean I'm going to paint a target on myself as well. Moreover, I hope that future generations find a way to preserve their anonymity, in a way which most people of my generation have failed. It will be vital to preserving what's left of our formerly free country.