Balancing Personal Security and Democracy On The Web

Since the internet’s inception, followed by no immediate regulation, individuals have used it for dubious or potentially criminal means. Arguably, today the most dangerous threat is its use by terrorists.

With revelations concerning the extent of our own security service’s involvement in the American Prism programme recently coming to light authorities have inevitably defended such an approach by security services for preventing several terrorist attacks since 9/11. Inevitably this attracted strong criticism from human right and liberty groups as an attack on personal freedom and privacy.

In recent weeks however this same privacy that elements of web grants to individuals is, arguably, one factor which has led to cyber-abuse and bullying of Caroline Criado-Perez and now the tragic death of Hannah Smith, reportedly due to cyber-bullying. What this points to is an inherent tension between privacy, transparency and personal security within the context of what is a relatively young technology.


Cyber-crime. As potentially dangerous as terrorism.

Though he was originally referring to beginnings of american democracy rather than the internet Alexis De Tocqueville remark that “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”, in this respect, seems perfectly relevant.

In many aspects the internet can be seen as a force for democratisation. As with democracy however certain restrictions are required to prevent a state of anarchy. Anarchy in any context can lead to tragic and dangerous consequences. Certainly the use of social media at the beginning of the Arab Spring indicates the potential of the internet. The domino effect as dictatorships fell after one another was partly because of the interconnectivity that the web brings to our contemporary world. Perversely this makes the internet one of the most powerful democratic forces, but due to ever faster technological advances the most difficult to police. Several factors work against those domestic authorities who try to police it. One of these is geographic location and its close relation to police jurisdiction. Since police forces have jurisdiction only over crimes that take place in the geographic location where they have authority and laws differ nation to nation those who commit cyber-crime can escape jurisdiction by simply residing in another country. They can potentially be extradited but this is a lengthy and difficult process even when treaties between certain countries allow it.

Anonymity is also seen as a factor that emboldens users. Commentators and Caroline Criado-Perez herself have indicated how the screen psychologically distances perpetuators from their victim and the consequences of their actions.

Within this context it is interesting to note that on the same day that the BBC reported on death the United States criticised Vietnam for introducing new a decree restricting its citizens from discussing such basic issues as current affairs. Campaign group Reporters Without Borders responded by stating “If [the decree] takes effect, Vietnamese will be permanently deprived of the independent and outspoken information that normally circulates in blogs and forums”.

When Censorship is taken to levels such as in China and Vietnam which clearly limit freedom on a such a level this is clearly not conducive with basic democratic principles. In these countries the authorities justify such measures in an attempt to control those voices, such as bloggers, who are critical of the communist parties policies and protect national security and interests. Would such measures have prevented such a tragic death there. Maybe, maybe not. More importantly what it does highlight is the equal importance of a citizens safety and well being to national security and the balance necessary between personal freedom and security to achieve both.

In the era of 24hrs news channels and the internet a terrorist attack will inevitably attract more media attention and there may be cases where subsequent sedurity measures have prevented terrorist acts. Ultimately however, individuals, aswell as a countries national security deserve to be protected from online threats.

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