The retention of our “metadata” — which is a genteel way to describe data — becomes mandatory today. Although it’s not yet practically possible for the majority of internet service providers to comply with this numb and expensive assault, it is still a good a day to think about taking action to retain our privacy. If you remain unsure about how to do this, you could take some of Bernard Keane’s guidance on drawing the curtains. You could think about joining a group committed to the defence of digital freedom. Or you could just heed Malcolm Turnbull’s advice and take protection from the terrible thinking that would eventually become Malcolm Turnbull’s law.

In opposition, Turnbull stated the fundamental need we have to “dream our own dreams, undirected by governments, and claim more than any generation before us, our birthright as free men and free women”. As is well known by critics of metadata retention, Turnbull gave over the 2012 Alfred Deakin Lecture to unambiguous resistance of what was then ALP policy.

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As communications minister, Turnbull was pretty frank about the folly of the laws that might cost some small providers their business and all Australians the loss of a life left reasonably overlooked. When speaking with David Speers this year — you might remember him as the Sky News anchor who admirably provoked George Brandis’ most chaotic vomit to date on the matter of data — Turnbull admitted what reasonable critics of the laws had been saying for some time: “There are always ways for people to get around things,” he said, in answer to a question about the effectiveness of the legislation in stopping serious crime. Moreover, he went on to explain the ways one could avoid detection, and even admitted to his personal taste for encryption.

As Prime Minister, Turnbull is no doubt very embarrassed and making every effort to thwart the laws that took effect under his leadership. We can no longer “dream our own dreams” but live in a mild nightmare of anxiety that one of our infractions with a council bin will be dumped all over our future.

Those of us who have taken even mild interest in the passage of these laws know very well that they will not stop serious crime. We know that those terrorists and child pornographers the policy class tends to evoke whenever some nonsense needs to be quickly sold are even more encrypted than Malcolm. “There are always ways for people to get around things.”

If we have been at all engaged with the formation of these laws we know:

  1. They will be as effective in preventing serious crime as they have been elsewhere in the world, which is to say, not a calculable bit. Minority Report hopes for predictive analysis came to nothing in Germany where the crime clearance rate rose by a fuzzy 0.06% before the laws were trashed as a rights violation.
  2. They are a rights violation.  The “I’m not doing anything illegal, ergo I have nothing to worry about” line of argument not only discounts Malcolm’s passionate defence of “our dreams” but The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One might not be doing anything illegal, but one might certainly doing something embarrassing that could cause real impediment if exposed. I, for example, fear the revelation of my most regular running route — and our location information counts as metadata — would have me sent to a gardening rehabilitation program. It’s nobody’s business how often I jog to Bunnings. It’s between me and Greg in the mulch aisle.
  3. They are thought of by our Prime Minister, despite his current presentations, as hooey.

The Prime Minister knows data retention laws defile our dreams. He’s said it. Yet, this nation is as currently capable of producing a protest as Julian Assange is of going for a quiet stroll around Knightsbridge. That we have offered so little opposition to scrutiny of the sort that will, as Turnbull says, afflict the national unconscious seems to make little sense. Until we think about how very inured we are to being watched.

Perhaps a nation begun as a convict colony makes easier peace with the loss of its dreams.

In Port Arthur, we can still see the well-intended nightmare of prison reformer Jeremy Bentham. Here, the panopticon design that places a surveillance tower at its centre is echoed, rather more creepily, in the chapel. Inmates worship in separate cubicles and cannot look at each other, but only at the clergyman. To visit the Separate Prison is to see the one half of the story of the Enlightenment and what divides us, most particularly from the United States. While they were building a nation on the Enlightenment principle of protecting the liberty of the privileged, we were protecting the underprivileged from themselves.

We’ve got a tendency to liberal paternalism, us lot. Much of the time, we genuinely believe the best thing we can do is offer ourselves up to strict guidelines. Even those who we might remember, as we might remember Bentham, as true reformers have been keen on diminishing other individual liberties. Female suffrage in Australia was largely led by The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. These ladies petitioned successfully for the vote, but they were also rather effective in controlling our access to drink and reading material. Those ladies were profoundly opposed to “vice”.

Australia remains the West’s most censored democracy. The idea that we are a people that “say what we think” is a fiction that helps us forget that we have banned more books, films and even video games than any comparable nation. Or, at least, it functions a consolation prize for the repressed knowledge that we have nothing much to say. Now, we do “say what we think”. But we have been living in panopticon conditions for so long, our dreams are no longer our own and what we largely think is “the bloke in the tower knows best”.

While it’s true that US citizens live under surveillance, it’s also true they’re not bloody happy about it. We may have produced an Assange, but what we have not produced is a Snowden. Assange is a thinker so radical, he really has no nation. Edward Snowden is, very clearly, a proud American. It was patriotism and a desire to reform his nation and restore the glory of the Fourth Amendment that drove him to do as he so bravely did. If Assange had an Enlightenment quote on his Facebook page, it’d be Thomas Paine’s “my country is the world”. If Snowden had one, it’d be the more conservative Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Even if one is Team Assange and rejects one’s jailers outright, you’ve got to admit that Snowden and Jefferson have something going for them in this case. Snowden and his many admirers, of whom we must suppose Rand Paul is reluctantly one, are fighting for the right to “our dreams”.  Assange is fighting for a post-Enlightenment utopia and, personally, I admire the hell out of his radical obduracy. But Snowden is trying to reason with the man in the tower and is fighting for something we are about to irretrievably lose: the insides of our heads.

One can say, as Malcolm has, that we should be cautious in upturning the contents of our skulls onto the internet. And obviously, we should. But, the fact alone of knowing that a good deal of our activity, or of others’ activity, can be viewed and stored in a central tower means that our skulls will be filled with fear.

This is a bad day. Made more troubling still by the knowledge that many Australians do say what they think. She’ll be right. The man in the tower can see that I’m not doing anything wrong.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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