Freedom to learn and civil liberties

Last week I attended both the Freedom to Learn Conference and Liberal Democrats Spring Conference. After two excellent events, it’s hard to avoid the urge to blog about freedom, education and civil liberties. They are all under threat…

This Conservative Government keeps trying to erode our civil liberties all in the name of security. They want to keep us safe. Apparently. There is no doubt that targeted surveillance of criminals should be allowed. I am not disagreeing with that, I don’t think anyone is. What I am arguing against is the wholesale collection of bulk data and essentially spying on every citizen in this country. This amount of data is dangerous and no-one should be trusted with it, least of all our government. After a string of hight profile data breaches, how can they be trusted to keep this data safe? Even if you trust a conservative government with this data, what is UKIP or Greens achieved a majority… would you be happy then? Hasn’t Snowdon’s high-profile whistleblowing demonstrated how our data is at risk?

As we live an increasingly large amount of our lives online, it is important to think of what that means. The data you share online is your communication with family and friends. It is your photographs and memories. It is your ideas and studies. It is you. Even if you have nothing to hide – do you not have something to protect? All of this stuff is precious and needs to be protected. I know the risks and benefits for engaging with this technology. I fear many young teenagers don’t. My biggest fear is that they ‘expect’ the government to spy on them to keep them safe. Is this a fair trade off? Bulk surveillance is the equivalent of the Home Office steaming open love letters sent in class. Even with this metaphor they don’t seem bothered…

This is where education comes in. While we can lobby the government, there may be no stopping Theresa May’s desire to know everything about everybody. Despite her lack of technical competence, there is a real chance the government will sink an awful lot of money to achieve the near impossible. The bulk collection of data about it’s citizens. So how can we fight back? I think education has a real power to make a difference. We need to teach, train and education our citizens to make sure they make informed choices. I share a lot of stuff about myself online. I use cloud storage. At least I don’t do this in naivety. I want everyone to know of the advantages and disadvantages of sharing their information so they can make informed choices too.

If we don’t do something, I genuinely feel we will raising a generation that expects to be observed and surveilled. The fight that we are having to protect our civil liberties is under threat unless we educate our teenagers to pick up this fight also. I am deeply concerned about the lack of education available, but maybe there is light. I had a brief opportunity to discuss this with Shami Chakrabarti and was heartened to hear there is a fight back. Some teenagers are looking carefully at what they share online and deciding against it. Some teenagers are shying away from Google and Facebook, aware of the consequences for sharing so much data with large companies. Lets hope this critical approach to sharing online is picked up by more.

So where does freedom to learn come in? Wherever our civil liberties are under treat, there is no freedom to learn. There is no freedom to debate. There is no freedom to think. Control just drives thinking underground not out in the open where it can be challenged and debated. This, if anything is the biggest threat to freedom to learn.

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