Big Brother is not watching you -- yet

Apr 6 2012 - 1:27pm

"Big Brother Is Watching You" was the pervasive punch line in British writer George Orwell's novel "1984." Recent developments regarding business and government in Britain give fresh currency to the classic.

James Murdoch has resigned as chairman of TV company BSkyB, though he remains on the board. This follows revelations that the Murdoch family's News International Corp. for years conducted massive hacking into British cellphones.

Targets included cellphones of a murdered young girl and relatives of soldiers killed in action. The continuing scandal includes allegations of police payoffs. In an unusual move, Britain's political parties united in Parliament to condemn the company.

Patriarch Rupert Murdoch's political influence in Britain has been enormous for decades. Politicians across the spectrum fear his power to embarrass or endorse, and have assiduously courted his favor.

Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was a committed socialist. Unlike many on the left today, however, he had personal involvement with working people, because he was one. He stressed egalitarianism, while warning about dangers of concentrated power in government as well as corporations.

The Murdoch snooping scandal is particularly grotesque, and may bring down that media empire. However, guarding individual freedom, including privacy, from intrusive power structures inevitably is a challenge.

Other developments in Britain and also the U.S. underscore this tension. Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wisely ended a national identity card plan. A card microchip linked to biometric data would facilitate bureaucratic snooping. However, a new proposal for email and Internet surveillance has sparked intense debate.

Apple leader Steve Jobs, not long before his death, gave particular emphasis to protecting customer privacy in announcing a new version of the iPhone.

A wit once quipped that "1984" was really about 1948, a reference to the Stalinist dictatorships in the time the novel was published.

Intense anti-communism seriously distorted U.S. domestic politics and the wider society. Intellectuals accused of left-wing views found their careers damaged and in some cases destroyed. Blacklisting of writers became a symbol of this intimidation. That era passed but state authority remains threatening.

An open economy under the rule of law helps limit potential abuse. Modern Britain has avoided dictatorship, and the effects of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's "Big Bang" deregulation of the economy were important in facilitating freedom. Her heavy-handed style earned her the sobriquet "'Big Sister," but the reforms were crucial to Britain's economic recovery and reassertion of international influence starting in the 1980s.

A similar process unfolded in the U.S., beginning in President Jimmy Carter's administration and carried much further by President Ronald Reagan's administration. The financial crises of the past decade, facilitated in part by deregulation gone too far, overshadow the durable beneficial consequences of this market freedom.

This in turn brings context to Jobs' statement. Apple in 2010 surpassed Microsoft in total capitalization, a major accomplishment for a firm floundering before cofounder Jobs returned. Products that facilitate freedom are now major Apple marketing themes.

Meanwhile, competitor Google has faced embarrassing accusations that extensive information has been collected on individuals. For example, Google Earth cars driving through random neighborhoods captured specific data from unsecure wireless outlets in unsuspecting households.

In our fascinating, fantastic global information revolution, institutions committed to following the law and protecting personal privacy, not just profits and power, deserve our support. Murdoch and crew deserve condemnation, and prosecution.

Above all, remember:

Big Brother is not watching you.

Not yet.

But he'd like to.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr@carthage.edu

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