A federal appeals court has ruled that police need a warrant in order to access e-mails. From a short-sighted point of view, this is a huge civil liberties victory. From my perspective, it may be a stepping stone into a paradigm shift in how the internet is viewed.
“What the hell are you blathering about?”
I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about: the idea of digital information as property.
Step away from the idea of police for a second and consider online media. Like millions of Americans, I download a large amount of movies and songs from the internet for free. If I like a movie or album a lot, I go out and buy it, even though I have it for free on my computer. I even download albums I already own for free.
Downloaded media is superior to traditionally purchased media (for many reasons), but I buy the media I like because if I don’t, the types of music and movies I like will cease to be made.
What the hell does this have to do with reading e-mails without a warrant?
The idea of digital information as “property” may lead to a situation where the internet is seen and treated quite differently than it is today. To me, downloading a song off the internet isn’t stealing. No one loses anything when I do it; the information is digitally multiplied without anything being taken away from the original.
When the police ask an ISP for your e-mails, they don’t cease to be sent. From the perspective of your use, nothing has changed. Your e-mail is basically like a song, and the police are basically a fan downloading it for their own personal use.
“Bret, you’re full of shit.”
Maybe. But it’s not just about internet music and movies.
WikiLeaks is heavily reliant on this concept. I view the copying of confidential information to not only lack criminality, but also to be an important tool for freedom. Rulings like this, which defend the illusion of privacy, may be seen as setting precedent when it comes to digital information. If the government is not allowed to intercept information from citizens, you better believe citizens won’t be granted the right to know what the government is saying and doing.
Please realize: I’m not saying I like the idea of the police having full access to everything, though I fail to see the earth-shattering consequences of it. I asked before for a worst-case scenario as to what horrible things could happen if law enforcement had access to e-mails, and I was largely met with ignorant tangents that failed to address my question. I assume nothing has changed, but if some creative soul has come up with a true nightmare scenario, please to share it with me.
Here’s what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid the internet and its content will be under attack. I am afraid of copyright law wiping the bulk of the internet blank. I am afraid of whistle-blowers being imprisoned for “stealing” digital information. I am basically afraid of our obsession with privacy leading to the internet being shuttered.
I don’t believe in slippery slopes. In fact, I revel in running downhill in the wintry recesses of the mind. I don’t assume that this sort of decision will lead to anything awful, but I am forced to consider the possible unintended consequences. Freedom cuts both ways, and the digital age (thus far) has been all about freedom.
Consider this: all of your e-mails are still stored, even if the government can’t look at them without a warrant. In fact, I don’t even understand why this is a “victory,” since getting a warrant is easier than patting your head while rubbing your tummy (or rubbing out protest while patting yourself on the back). Hell, the Pentagon employs hackers who are good enough to simply steal any of the information they want anyway, warrant and permission be damned.
From my perspective, this is a nice token victory, but I don’t see it having any real positive ramifications. Rather, I see the door being opened on a new vision of how the internet will be viewed from a legal standpoint, and it’s not very rosy.
Your e-mails are still being stored, your privacy is still an illusion, and the government has now taken the perspective that the virtual world is no different than the material one. I’m not looking forward to them screwing up my online experience like they have with the world outside my home, and I have no one to thank but a couple of snake-oil salesmen.
What? You didn’t actually read the court case?
Remember those Enzyte commercials selling “natural male enhancement,” with that goofy looking smiley guy? Well, that company was selling trash in a pill that did absolutely nothing, and the government went after them for false-advertising. During the investigation, they obtained e-mails without a warrant.
So, in summation: old yuppies who couldn’t get hard wouldn’t pony-up for Viagra (or were too embarrassed to go to their doctor to get a prescription), so they bought a pill which did nothing, sued the company… and the end result is that porn may start to be very difficult to find on the internet.
Ironic, in a way…
Well, I’m going to go e-mail myself some porn (while it’s still available online) so it can safely be stored in the privacy of my inbox.
My closing thought: most people mistakenly think they have privacy, when actually no one gives a shit about them. Privacy is a myth, ask any celebrity.