British Prime Minister David Cameron is looking to make like an autocratic Arab dictator, and use the aftermath of the anarchistic violence that just swept across England’s streets as a reason to push through reforms curtailing internet speech and increasing online surveillance. This follows closely on the heels of the United States passing it’s own bill drastically curtailing internet anonymity, as it forces ISPs to log massive amounts of user data.
The history of the Isles cracking down on the dissemination of dissent goes back at least to 1644, when the English Parliament re-introduced government control of printing and publishers in response to John Milton’s essay arguing against the Catholic Church’s strictures against divorce. Milton’s response championed free-speech above all other liberal rights: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
But governments across Europe had been actively trying to prevent that for centuries, as at one time or another the roster of banned books included those written by Descartes, Galileo, Hume, Locke, Defoe, Rousseau, and Voltaire. Limiting and controlling thought is nothing new to governments, and so it was this history of official censorship and censure that in 1776 led Thomas Paine to take an important precaution when he published the argument that caused the call for American independence to fully coalesce.
In one of the opening scenes of the coming-of-age cinematic classic Dazed and Confused, a history teacher yells after her class on the last day of school that over the summer during the holiday weekend when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha, they shouldn’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, rich white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.
There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment, although it’s not something anyone studies much in high school – where we focus on the social and philosophical elements of the American Revolution and, for the most part, ignore its underlying economic elements. True, if those rich white men had been taxed more fairly, the Revolution might never have occurred. Something you’re reminded of every time you see the cheeky slogan on a DC license plate.
But even with the economic preconditions in place, a cathartic spark was still needed to weld the American people behind common ideals and a shared recognition of where the nation was headed – full independence as an autonomous nation, not just fairer treatment as a colony. As 1776 began, whether America was fighting for full independence or merely fairer taxes was still very much in question – there wasn’t yet any national consensus.
Until Thomas Paine, who it’ll probably surprise you to hear had been born in England and only actually lived in America for a few months before the Revolutionary War began, published what would become the per-capita best selling and most widely-circulated book in American history.
And maybe the most telling thing about Common Sense was that it was published anonymously.
Fearing retribution from his home government for what he rightly assumed would be seen as treasonous speech, Paine both donated all the proceeds from what would be called “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era” to General George Washington’s Continental Army, and made sure that his name wasn’t attached to it. Paine’s colloquial tone and allusions to commonly embraced biblical stories and morals made Common Sense accessible to the colonists, and even those who couldn’t read were held spellbound by public readings of the pamphlet which gradually flared up as the work’s popularity exploded across the eastern seaboard.
Anonymity, whether in practice or implicit, has been a central part of free democratic life since America’s earliest days. The United States Constitution drew directly from the axioms and arguements in the Federalist Papers, and although historians now have a pretty good idea about the identities of Publius and their dissenters – all these arguements were originally carried out via pseudonym.
As John Stuart Mill put it, free and anonymous discussion prevents “the deep slumber of a decided opinion,” and it serves another crucial political role as well. Although it’s often taken for granted, the Western Democracies that sprouted up on the framework America laid aren’t just raw democratic polities, they’re liberal democracies, which in addition to always preserving free speech also always hold regular elections by secret ballot.
Here “secret” can be used interchangeably with “anonymous,” as the entire point of a secret ballot was to keep your political opinion detached from your identity – to keep it anonymous. Until the past few generations an average citizen’s vote was the only real political voice they had. The resources to distribute a pamphlet or any other literary device was curtailed by simple economic realities – most people simply couldn’t afford it. Ensuring that a citizen’s vote was secret and therefore anonymous was seen as an extension of free speech in the days before anyone with an internet connection could distribute their words to the world, your vote was your voice.
Free speech is a protected Constitutional right for good reason, and anonymity has come part and parcel with the concept of “free” from America’s very start. And allowing governments to track and censor internet communications would undermine the precepts that’ve bulwarked liberal democracies in one more fundamental way.
There’s a good reason autocratic governments from Soviet Russia to present-day Syria have placed strict restrictions on public gatherings, passing laws prohibiting people from meeting up in any significant number. Autocratic governments fear that these meetings would lead to insurrection and revolution, by allowing citizens to gather together and form social capital, the trust that forms among members of a community whenever they gather together and form a consensus about what kind of future they want to live in and how best to get there.
A liberal democracy remains vibrant because of social capital, it’s the glue that bonds citizens together and brings them a sense of shared purpose and control over their lives.
Back at the turn of the century Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam noticed that over the previous fifty-years, social engagement had declined dramatically, and argued for increased social interaction, not just “because it will be good for America — though it will be — but because it will be good for us,” since belonging to an organization halves the chance that you’ll die within the next year.
And yet since that decline at the turn of the century, social interaction have sublimated into online interactions. Everywhere from 4chan to Facebook and every anonymous messageboard inbetween, people feel tied to a larger community via the internet where if anything studies have shown over and over again that “feelings are stronger in almost every measurement.” Of course there’s a flip side to “the greater intimacy of online interactions” - people are also more prone to be douchebags to each other.
All the same, it’s the anonymity of online interactions that allow for these robust positive feelings to develop – the social capital of the twenty-first century. But both Great Britain and the United States are beginning to tighten a panopticon noose around internet anonymity in an attempt to asphyxiate the fundamental interactions prerequisite for the existence of liberal democracies.
Seeking to choke out free and anonymous speech online if an attack on the fundamental democratic principles we’ve lived with for over two-hundred years, there is no way to disentangle the two concepts from each other, and passing laws aimed at doing just that is nothing other than an attack on free societies.
But sadly the internet came a bit too late for Thomas Paine, after once rubbing elbows with everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Napoleon Bonaparte by the time of his death he’d become ostracized from polite society because of his outspoken views against Christianity, and only six mourners showed up at his funeral. At first it might seem surprising and just a bit random that two of them were black.
But it turns out Thomas Paine was one of the first influential American voices to speak out against slavery, and saw well in advance the lasting legacy of injustice and despair it would bring to America.