In defence of PRISM: why we need governments in cyberspace.

The Magna Carta from 1215 is an early English ...

The Magna Carta from 1215 is an early English form of encoded social and legal rules. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


With the latest revelations about the United States of America’s government’s access to various internet services  companies, people have been outraged. They seem genuinely surprised that such action is occurring.  What they fail to realize are two important things.  First, they have no privacy.  Privacy, as understood by most people, does not exist and is simply a convenient illusion created by the modern state.  However, that idea takes me away from the central concern, why we have governments in cyberspace.  In other words, why PRISM is needed and why, ultimately, we want it despite the protestations to the contrary.


In the international realm, perhaps the internet in its fullest understanding, there is no government.  We have been working to make a world government or at least the rule of law in the international realm since 1948. The United States (and other democracies) have tried to bring the rule of law that we see in the domestic sphere, to the international realm. The central document in that process has been the UN Charter. However, let us leave aside the political philosophy to consider the practical issues that PRISM raises.


Do we want a lawless international realm where criminals are more powerful than the state?


Let us consider the following situations. What happens if a government CANNOT protect us? If our safety as citizens is a key part of why we obey that government, then what happens when it cannot protect us? We would have to start to fend for ourselves or be prey to the strongest.  If a government cannot protect you or lacks the tools to defend the state or its citizens, who are you going to turn to? Ghostbusters?  Do you want a world where you rely upon a private company to protect you?  Are you going to wait for Google, Amazon, or Facebook to enforce the law or take down that child pornography ring? Do you wait for the phone company to stop the drug dealing gangs, or the people planning to kill those they do not like?


Will Facebook, Amazon, or Google protect you from a cyber attack?


Why do we assume the private company is more accountable than a democratic government bound by the rule of law and due process?  I like the various anti-virus providers, but I certainly would not put the safety of the regime, in their hands.  Why would you allow an unelected private corporation to have that power over you? The lessons of the phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom and Rupert Murdoch’s baleful effect on the United Kingdom’s political culture should give one pause for thought.  The reporters and editors, of a private corporation, determined what was in the public interest to hack into phones, dig through waste bins, and put its corporate enemies under surveillance. In effect, they, and not elected officials, determined the public interest and they justified all sorts of activities that benefit the newspaper without a concern for accountability.


In the international realm, we know that many governments that want to harm the United States and its allies.  On a more prosaic level, people do not get along very well and the government is there to keep the peace.  When Rwanda’s government failed, people were butchered. The strong UK government is a reason Protestants and Catholics are not killing each other.  In the international realm, there is no government so if a government, say the Iraqi government wants to kill some Turkish Kurds, who is going to stop them? The Turkish government is going to defend them.  If the Turkish government could not protect its citizens, why would they want to obey the Turkish government? Are those Turkish Kurds going to turn to Google or Facebook for protection if they face a cyber-attack? No. They are going to turn to the Turkish government.  The government is there to have the tools and resources at their disposal for just this reason.


We give governments the power to protect us that is what we call a representational democracy.


Why do we assume the states are automatically a threat because of PRISM?  I am more likely to die from food poisoning when a restaurant employee forgets to wash his hands after using the toilet than I am from the Seal Team Six.  We forget at our peril the reasons why we have governments in the first place. The strange uproar over PRISM and earlier analysis such as this, forget the purpose and meaning of government: justice, common good, common defence. The analysis that the state is a threat because it has more resources misses the point of why or how the state has more resources. It conflates resources with intent. Let us judge a state by its intent, its founding principles, its regime, than simply the resources at it disposal.  A state has amassed the resources because the citizens have consent to it. They want the state to have the power to defend them, as and when it is needed. In other words, they want to know they are safe because the state is acting on their behalf.

Without governments we become the judge and jury in our own cases or might makes right


What is particularly problematic about the PRISM situation is that everyone believes he or she, as an individual, can judges the common good and not accepting that their behaviour has to be judged against the common good as embodied in the law. Individuals want to be able to act in the internet as if there is no government and they can act as they like. The idea is deeply corrosive to decent politics and it runs throughout cyberspace. The hidden problem with this view is that it leads to a brutal world where might makes right. The strongest will rule in cyberspace. One needs to go back to a pre-technological era to understand this point. Thucydides said it best.


The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must; only between equals, can there be justice.


In a democracy, we are equals before the law and before nature. Without a government, there is no equality.  As such, a good government act as a good shepherd in cyberspace. Without them, we would be prey to the wolves.  In other words, we need good government in cyberspace for the same reasons we need it in the physical world.  The worst form of government is one that preys upon its people. See Syria to see this in action. Do we seriously believe that the United States government is acting towards its citizens as the Syrian government is doing to its citizens?

PRISM teaches us that we need to understand why we have goverments


Finally, there is a sad misunderstanding that if a government regulates cyberspace it controls it.  A government regulates our physical space, there are laws, but that does not mean the government controls our actions.  We live under laws of our own making.  In doing so, we benefit from them and we have redress when they are broken. We can exercise free speech, the right of assembly and other rights within the law.  Why should this not be the case cyberspace?  Would you really want to live in a world, or a city, where the rule of law does not exist? How will you defend yourself? Soon you would have to turn to a local warlord or a protector. Yet, how would you judge their justice?  Moreover, whom would you turn to if the local protector turned out to be a wolf and not a shepherd?  In effect, we return to where we started a need to understand the reason we have governments in the first place.  An understanding that seems sadly lacking in most debates of cyberspace.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the 10th and 51st Federalist Papers to understand what a government does for us.  Instead of bemoaning PRISM, we should wonder what is about the world that requires PRISM.



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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