What is legal and what is ethical are two different things. It should be obvious but the two are often conflated. During Apartheid, certain beaches were reserved for Whites only and mixed marriages were illegal. At that time, something which was unethical was legal and something which was ethical was illegal. We are less inclined to look at the present and our own actions in the same way and, of course, even when we do we are unlikely to decide our own actions are unethical. We also seldom think through all the possible outcomes of a particular course of action and what effects it could have on other people. There is a reason we have the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Let’s first consider the good. Google and Microsoft are working to prevent access to images of child abuse. Child abuse is a serious issue and unethical as children are too young for consensual sexual relationships. By preventing access to the images the intention is to protect children, presumably by not feeding the desire for real children in people that are susceptible to such a desire. More cynically, we might note that once a child has been abused, if more people view the image it doesn’t necessarily make the abuse any worse. And, if no images are available, those with the desire may be forced to create new images, leading to more cases of abuse. But those potential negative consequences are hopefully unlikely and would be outweighed by those that would now not be triggered.
Let’s consider this though:
In July, Mr Cameron called on Google and Microsoft’s Bing – which together account for 95% of search traffic – to do more to prevent people getting access to illegal images.
We already know that Cameron has fairly repressive views that he wants to impose on others so can we really believe he can understand the difference between legal and ethical? I doubt it. If Western governments, particularly the US and UK, continue attempting to be a surveillance state we are going to see more and more unintended consequences coming out. For one, their actions will inspire other, even more repressive governments to do the same thing. The data they collect will become a weak point that we can’t do anything to protect. Depending who has power, we will see people that have done nothing ethically wrong in legal trouble. I think a recent story from Uganda might be what the future will be like.
A British man, who spends his winters in Uganda, had his laptop stolen and the thieves sent the images on it, of the man engaging in gay sex, to a Ugandan tabloid. He is now being charged with trafficking obscene publications. This story is important because it holds many parallels to what is happening in the West and why it is a problem.
First we have the loss of privacy. Just as the US and UK governments are undermining citizens’ privacy, so the thieves violated this man’s privacy. True, the thieves had no good motives for their actions, unless they thought exposing a homosexual was a good thing, but the motives of the US and UK have become twisted in any case. We should also note that this man had nothing to hide, he had come out as gay but he also had things that he didn’t want to share with certain people. Privacy is not negotiable. It’s not just an excuse to cover up misdeeds.
If we have a surveillance state, especially with complicity from Google and Microsoft, so much of this data will be available to people who should not have it. If those agencies are hacked then people’s private lives would be compromised. More often than you’re going to catch criminals, you’re going to catch innocent people. What he should have done is password-protected and encrypted his computer in case it was stolen. Just as one locks one’s doors, one needs to protect one’s digital information too. Unfortunately the NSA has been trying to subvert encryption and, consequently, leave everyone less safe than they should be.
We can also see the problems with confusing what is legal and what is ethical. That man faces jail time over an illegal but perfectly ethical act. Considering the way David Cameron leans, I’m sure that could be the case for many UK citizens too, if he had his way. Widespread surveillance is very open to abuse by those that have access to the data. What’s to stop an NSA member from using something he sees at work to blackmail someone? Or to stop someone with an agenda from releasing that data to a tabloid, like the thieves did? All we will get is assurances from the governments, governments who have already lied to us.
Protecting the country and protecting children are the ways governments try to gain acceptance for their intrusions. Google is removing results with child abuse to protect children, and that’s commendable. But do we really think that every time someone does something for the children it’s really going to benefit them? Protecting the children is motivation for Russia’s law preventing depictions of homosexuality as an acceptable life choice. When no one is being harmed, there should be no laws restricting that action. We are not in that situation. We are in a situation where many ethical choices are deemed illegal and where the government is steadily eroding people’s privacy, supposedly to help them. This is the road to hell paved with good intentions.