The Road to Digital Serfdom

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme” — Milton Friedman

In 1944, Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” was published. Hayek’s tome warns against central planning by governments (i.e., socialism). More important, Hayek argues that the abandonment of classical liberalism — individual rights, the rule of law, property rights, limited government, and free markets — must lead to a loss of freedom.

Two days ago, Digital Rights Watch — a leftwing activist organisation — released a timeline of legislation in Australia that affects digital privacy. The timeline reminded me of Hayek’s work; specifically, the erosion of Australians’ rights and digital privacy by both federal and state governments.

The timeline — missing several state laws — details the loss of Australians’ digital freedom since the 9/11 attacks, including the odd victory for digital freedom such as the Notifiable Data Breach Scheme.

Hayek’s genius is showing his readers that tyranny is inevitable if the government centrally controls the economy. For me, Hayek’s writing can be extrapolated into other areas of government policy, including digital privacy. Here, we see that governments become tyrannical if allowed to centrally surveil citizens whilst ignoring classical liberal principles for digital privacy: individuals’ right to privacy, the rule of law against unauthorised surveillance, and the necessity of limited government.

Moreover, Hayek shows a technical issue — often argued by Milton Friedman — with government legislation: It’s rare that legislation is repealed (e.g., “hate speech” laws in the West), rare that nonsensical government programmes are closed down (e.g., Safe Schools in Victoria), and rare that governments decrease in size, power, and influence. For digital privacy, this natural cadence of ever increasing government power can only mean more legislation against citizens’ digital privacy and freedom; this cadence can never mean more digital privacy and freedom. This is the road to digital serfdom.

Hayek’s writings are a warning not heeded by governments or citizens. Even after the Snowden revelations of 2013 and onward, governments — both Left and Right — doubled down on mass surveillance throughout the West. In my opinion, much of today’s politics isn’t Left vs. Right but rather The Establishment — the media, academics, professional organisations, educators, and politicians — against citizens.

As I have argued in a previous blog post, governments in the West are inherently incapable of protecting citizens’ digital privacy, because governments in the West cannot reconcile two missions: surveillance for national defence and digital privacy for its citizens.

Likewise, I’ve argued — and intend to continue my thoughts in a book I’m writing — that more government legislation cannot solve the problem of digital privacy, because the government is the primary threat to citizens’ digital privacy. Arguing for more government involvement in digital privacy only puts the digital privacy faction of the government against the national defence faction of the government, and the digital privacy faction cannot win against national defence concerns.

In Australia, Alastair MacGibbon’s reign as “cyber tsar” infamously included gaslighting the country, lying that the federal government didn’t want to compel companies in Australia to create backdoors to systems in order to enable government access to citizens’ data.

Indeed, what is needed is less government involvement in both digital privacy and mass surveillance for national defence, in order to increase citizens’ digital privacy in the West. Hayek shows us that government cannot be the answer; government is the problem.