September 25, 2012
Of Franklin Roosevelt's famous four freedoms (1), the first, freedom of speech, has assumed hallowed supremacy while the last, freedom from fear, is unfortunately found wanting. Witness US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the Duchesse of Cambridge, in Old England, French embassy personnel in Arab countries and consumers the world over who crowded last week's news with stories of woe as regrettable as they were diverse.
At first sight, my witnesses share little in common besides living on a planet ever more tightly integrated by today's economic ties. Yet at the same time societies seem to disintegrate with equal force, leading to rising fears from invisible foes, especially those focused on controlling our information.
Take poor Mitt Romney. According to Michael D. Sear, "his campaign is concentrating on the "5 to 10 percent in the center" whom he described as "thoughful" voters" (*). Indeed in a tight race where a politician estimates her opponent has captured 47% of the vote, why would she waste money on those already committed to him? And in a pronaocracy, where is this money coming from if not from those whose interests she represents?
And so "during a private reception with donors earlier this year", Mitt Romney let himself talk in contemptuous tones of those "47 percent of the people". He was unwise but, pray, who has never spoken ill of a third party when meeting a like-minded friend? Certainly not President Obama (2).
However he did commit a deadly sin. As a businessman, he should have compared the cost of betraying his privacy to the benefits his Judas could expect. Check Christine Haughney's accounting (**). "After the story's publication on Monday afternoon, Mother Jones' Web site received nearly two million page views in the first 12 hours, double the magazine's previous 24-hour record, and 6.1 million by Wednesday afternoon".
Fear the day then when we cannot say a word or make a gesture in private without the fear of having them made public without our consent.
In a prescient essay, Garret Keizer recalls "the American Revolution was made from ale and sealing wax as much as powder and shot" (***). "Constitutional scholar Kenneth L. Karst speaks of privacy as protecting our "freedom of intimate association", our ability to consort with people of our own choosing". He echoes law professor Neil M. Richards in his defense of "freedom of thought" and "intellectual privacy".
These defensors of privacy are law scholars, not firebrands. If they find the current legal framework wanting, it is naive for a Financial Times editorial on freedom of speech to state that "in democratic societies there are enough laws to constrain abuses of the right to free speech" (****).
If the courts delivered justice, the Duchess of Cambridge could enjoy the glare of the sun without having to fear the lens of the Sun and sundry rags.
"A French court [...] rebuked the magazine Closer for publishing "particularly intrusive" photographs [...] ordering [Mondadori Magazines France] to cease all publication [...] of the pictures, and to hand over all digital copies of the images to the royal family" (*****). These penalties are worthless. Deleting public digital information is a dream and Closer only needed a few hours to capture the value of such sensational information.
Scott Sayare leaves the obvious, if cynical, conclusion to "Christophe Bigot, a media attorney in Paris". "The financial penalties [...] are typically small [...] while the potential gains in publicity and increased circulation can be significant".
Indeed Charlie Hebdo published anti-Islamic cartoons less to "mak[e] a serious point", as The Financial Times puts it, than to profit from a wily calculation. The satirical magazine timed its provocation to be widely relayed by all media and maximize income, while dumping most associated costs on the French government, what with "the closure of embassies, schools and other institutions in 20 countries", as reported by Hugh Carnegy (******). It then added hypocrisy to cynicism to mock the Prime Minister as too feeble a defender of "the freedom of the press in the Republic".
Actually hypocrisy from corporate interests runs much deeper. Since they turn our security and our privacy into public fodder under cover of the sacred mantle of freedom of speech, one might expect them to uphold this first freedom at all times. No such luck, I am afraid.
Quite real on the contrary are the consumers' fears that corporations visit censorship upon others while preaching freedom of speech for themselves.
How else to call Apple's decision to drop "Google Maps, a fixture of the iPhone since its debut in 2007"? Is it for its users' convenience that it steers them to a fledging service prone to errors such as "designat[ing] a farm in Dublin as an airport", a telling detail relayed by Tim Bradshaw (*******)?
Apple will claim censorship is a political tool, irrelevant to a non state world power such as itself, with no citizens to care about. But can it also deny its economic role? A direct beneficiary of free trade, Apple's palantír model rests on pure protectionism, justifying hypocrisy accusations anew.
If protectionism by a state hurts its economy by limiting freedom of choice, why would it be different for a corporation? Again Apple will stress its users are always free to switch to competitors. But when dealing with a power the size of Apple, emigration is no easier than when leaving one's own country. Think of the personal data a user must leave behind. If you stand for freedom, tear down that wall, Mr Cook!
Actually, when a disintegrating society lets corporations set the law and collect the taxes, one must be an optimist to argue markets will remain free on their own. What if our Information Age never reaches the relative peace provided by a balance of powers? What if Apple or any one of the Vandals of today rose above all others? How much benevolent would the paramount world power need to be if users have nowhere else to go?
True, whether victor or victim, eventually Apple will go into decadence. "It is the nature of capitalism that big companies become defensive" writes Joe Nocera (********). Rather than rejoicing in Schumpeter's creative destruction, understand failing companies can be just as dangerous for those who depend upon them as failing states are for citizens and neighbors alike. Were Facebook bankrupt, who would buy its consumer data?
Above a certain size, closed systems run by non-state world powers should at least be thrown open, by international sanctions if necessary.
Rather than an illegal seizure of private property, it would only force on corporations the benefits of freedom of speech. Be they free from fear.
- (*) ............... Video Shows Romney Dismissing 47% Who Pay No Income Tax, by Michael D. Sear (New York Times) - September 18, 2012
- (**) ............. Video of Romney Turns Spotlight on a Magazine, by Christine Haughney (New York Times) - September 20, 2012
- (***) ........... A social kind of selfishness, by Garret Keizer (Boston Globe) - September 16, 2012
- (****) ......... In defense of the right to free speech, editorial (Financial Times) - September 21, 2012
- (*****) ....... French Court Rules Against Magazine on Royal Photos, by Scott Sayare (New York Times) - September 19, 2012
- (******) ..... France on alert over Prophet cartoons, by Hugh Carnegy (Financial Times) - September 20, 2012
- (*******) ... Maps app gripes knock iPhone rollout off course, by Tim Bradshaw (Financial Times) - September 21, 2012
- (********) . Has Apple Peaked?, by Joe Nocera (New York Times) - September 22, 2012
- (1) for more details, see the Four Freedoms on wikipedia
- (2) as Michael D. Sear also mentions, in 2008 candidate Obama similarly disparaged "small-town Pennsylvania voters" at a San Francisco fund-raiser.