"Big Brother Is Watching You" was the pervasive punch-line in British writer George Orwell's classic novel "1984." Now we know Big Brother is listening too.
Revelations that Rupert Murdoch's News International Corp. for years has conducted massive hacking into British cell phone information is truly shocking. Alleged targets include cell phones of a murdered young girl and relatives of soldiers killed in action. Britain's political parties have united in Parliament, an unusual move, to condemn the company.
The scandal includes allegations of police payoffs. An initial police investigation concluded the snooping was a renegade incident targeting only a few individuals.
Murdoch's political influence in Britain has been enormous. 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, however, he had personal involvement with working people, because he was one. He stressed egalitarianism, while warning about the 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 British politics and American business underscore this tension. Britain's Coalition government has wisely repealed a national identity card. A card microchip linked to biometric data encouraged bureaucratic snooping. Amid launch of the latest iPhone, Apple leader Steve Jobs gave particular emphasis to protecting customer privacy.
A wag once suggested that "1984" was really about 1948, a reference to the Stalinist dictatorships ruling in Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union when the novel was published. The Cold War had just emerged, and for many Communism seemed the wave of the future.
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.
An open economy under the rule of law helps limit abuse. Modern Britain has never had dictatorship, and the effects of Conservative 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 the Carter administration and carried much further by the Reagan 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 Steve Jobs' statement. Apple last year surpassed Microsoft in total capitalization, a major accomplishment for a firm floundering less than 10 years ago before cofounder Jobs returned. Products that facilitate freedom are now major Apple marketing themes.
Meanwhile, competitor Google has grappled with embarrassing accusations that extensive information on individuals has been collected. 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.
But he'd like to.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org