Yesterday Bob posted two different articles – one which linked to an article arguing that the world’s autocrats “are learning to eviscerate their peoples’ civic choices incrementally,” and another about the political trial of opposition member Andrei Piontkovsky. In light of these observations, it is especially timely to consider the questions raised by the following passage from this week’s Economist about the rapidly declining status of privacy and civil liberties in the age of terrorism – a difficult balance to strike in any country:
Ross Anderson, a professor at Cambridge University in Britain, has compared the present situation to a “boiled frog”—which fails to jump out of the saucepan as the water gradually heats. If liberty is eroded slowly, people will get used to it. He added a caveat: it was possible the invasion of privacy would reach a critical mass and prompt a revolt. If there is not much sign of that in Western democracies, this may be because most people rightly or wrongly trust their own authorities to fight the good fight against terrorism, and avoid abusing the data they possess. The prospect is much scarier in countries like Russia and China, which have embraced capitalist technology and the information revolution without entirely exorcising the ethos of an authoritarian state where dissent, however peaceful, is closely monitored. On the face of things, the information age renders impossible an old-fashioned, file-collecting dictatorship, based on a state monopoly of communications. But imagine what sort of state may emerge as the best brains of a secret police force—a force whose house culture treats all dissent as dangerous—perfect the art of gathering and using information on massive computer banks, not yellowing paper.
It seems to me that the erosion of many liberties in Russia has occurred in a gradualist fashion, which may explain in part the tragic apathy and lack of public outrage that political opponents of the government are facing jail time under an arbitrary extremism law.