Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is government monitoring of social media wrong?

This story from the New York Times makes me wonder. I've always argued that blogging is more analogous to that semi-public conversation in the pub than traditional publication, and we wouldn't expect governments to snoop on such exchanges.

Yes. In a virtual world, what we say is registered and may remain online for years. But the intention, the context, the way we exchange ideas, the way we share them, sometimes unattributed (through no fault of anyone's), the way we build upon them for a greater good ... all of this smacks to me more of that pre-Gutenberg world of oral communication than the post-printing press age of unidirectional publishing.  Social media is anything but unidirectional.  That's the real difference between the world of traditional copyright and this brave new world we are all so bemused by - and, perhaps, in some cases, even frightened of.

So does the government have the right to monitor these virtual dialogues?  In a strictly legal sense, of course it does.  They are in the public domain.  But in a moral sense, surely we are not looking to reproduce the nasty small-minded intrusivenesses of Cold War Eastern European states that would lead us all to begin to look over our shoulders in fear of committing imagined and forever expanding transgressions.

No.  This is not the right way.  If we believe in anything in the West, it is the freedom to speak.  Government monitoring of social media will impose a painful and bloody break on everything we hold dear - and, indeed, in the spirit of openness that peer-to-peer consumption and production could bring us all both economically and culturally, everything we could achieve in the future. 

Please let us think again.  And let us think again in good faith.