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The Greatest Threat to Free Expression is Mass Surveillance, Not Islamists


In reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a good deal of U.S. commentary has been dedicated to the threat to free speech posed by the stifling of bold journalists at work – and that we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to be censored by barbarians trying to impose a backward culture. I couldn’t agree more, yet it begs the question of why we aren’t more concerned about the demonstrated self-censorship already in effect among journalists, writers and the population at large, because of mass surveillance:

NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor (PEN American Center, U.S.)


Then there is the alarming report on the effect of mass surveillance on writers around the world: Global Chilling: The impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers (PEN American Center, U.S.)


This recent absurd op-ed by ivory-tower-bound columnist David Brooks headlined: I Am Not Charlie Hebdo, comes to mind. Good for you, David Brooks! You say you don’t personally like those cartoons – sophomoric attempts at humor that they are – but that you defend the right of the martyred men to make them. But when we grow up, you inform us, we will outgrow things like biting satire that disturb the sensibilities of civilized folk. Yes – Charlie Hebdo and the rest of us should “grow up” into mature organizations in bed with the authorities like yours!:

‘Am Not Charlie Hebdo’ (The New York Times, U.S.)

Getting back to the point – when satire can no longer be produced without fear of assassination – that is a demonstrably bad thing that any sane person since Voltaire would oppose. While leading commentators are preening themselves for supporting free speech, might I interject we already have investigative reporters being prosecuted under the Espionage Act unable to convince sources to come forward; and writers who won’t delve into certain subjects and avoid search terms for fear of being targeted by the intelligence services now or tomorrow. That is to say nothing of the massive long-term damage done around the world to the reputations of America’s Internet giants, which are now seen as extensions of the U.S. intelligence services.

Why, pray tell, don’t people like David Brooks, supposed models of journalistic integrity at America’s most influential newspaper, start asking some harder questions about the pernicious self-censorship that has already infected the body politic and is demonstrably undermining American democracy? The intelligence services and their well-lobbied legislators have effectively blunted opposition to their activities, ably assisted by the mainstream media, which incessantly plays up the threat of the week. Whatever the justification for it, the First and Fourth Amendments, and others, are too high a price to pay as part of any acceptable trade-off for the supposed provision of security.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that these activities undermine our security – economically and in terms of preventing attacks.

As we posted a few days ago, mass surveillance is grossly ineffective in preventing terrorism, which was again shown in the Paris attacks. The time and energy spent on surveilling the perpetrators for over a decade appears to have done nothing to prevent the terrorist strikes. That’s the dirty little secret that the intelligence services do everything in their power to hide – in order to protect their budgets and legal authorities. As I have said before, are we to believe that if we were all even more monitored, and if the intelligence services had even more data to sift through, we would all be “safer”?

I quote again Mr. Snowden, who cites White House independent review panels:

“But we also have officials on the White House’s independent review panels who said that these programs had never been shown to stop even a single imminent terrorist attack in the United States, and they had no value. So how could it be that these programs were so valuable that talking about them, revealing them to the public would end the world if they hadn’t stopped any attacks?”

Exclusive: Edward Snowden on Cyber Warfare (Nove Next, PBS)

The uptick in the amount of information any one of us must process on an average day is astounding, as is the rate of technological change. The metaphor of a frog in a slowly heating pot of water really seems appropriate here, and we need to wake up before it boils. How many “wake up calls” do there have to be?

Let’s make sure we are going into this with our eyes open. If we don’t take a stand against the steady adoption of mechanisms that literally spy on our daily lives to the point that every moment of every day is accounted for in immediately-available digitized form, then we are no longer living in a “free society.” The best one could call it is a soft police state.

By any measure, mass, unrestricted data collection and surveillance of people not under suspicion is unconstitutional, and I would suggest, cowardly and glaringly un-American. Culturally, at its core, unrestricted mass data collection and surveillance is the antithesis of freedom and free expression, a perfect, silent, constantly-effective Panopticon.


William Kern, founder of, is the inventor of trans-copyediting, a system for checking the accuracy of translated copy into multiple languages. Since 2005, managing a team of dedicated volunteer translators, Kern has edited, packaged and posted thousands of columns of news and opinion about America from publications around the world and from every major language, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Swedish, Spanish, Hungarian and Farsi. From the height of the Iraq war to the annexation of Crimea right up to today, Kern and his team have provided intelligence to the American people by opening up a whole new media world.

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