Angela Merkel is outraged that the United States has wiretapped her phone. However, she expresses no concern for her fellow 82 million Germans, nor for her fellow 500 million Europeans that are victims of the same abuse. This shows the importance of making things personal for politicians – taking the fight to them, to break down their professional wall of comfort, if you want things to change.
When the Swedish Pirate Party was founded, it was on the insight that politicians didn’t care a bit about civil liberties unless their jobs were on the line over them. Having seen the intense discussions about software patent monopolies, about the Data Retention Directive (a.k.a. “the put-a-governmental-tracking-beacon-on-every-citizen act”), and about yet another shameless mail-order harshening of the copyright monopoly, what struck me was that everybody discussed these laws as abhorrent – everybody except the politicians. They just weren’t part of the debate.
That was very odd, as politicians are usually the first to notice when something is important to a lot of people. But there was no debate on these matters, because it would have required politicians – all existing politicians – to understand a completely new perspective of civil liberties online. (It’s not rocket science, really. If a citizen’s right applies to a physical letter, it applies to that citizen’s electronic communications, too. People are citizens on the internet, too. Can’t see why they don’t get it.)
My insight at the time was that politicians generally don’t care unless you make it personal to them. They’re not evil, it’s just that their schedule is crammed full by bloody lobbyists already, and you’re not getting onto it. At least not within the intended framework. But once I stepped out of that framework, and challenged the politicians on election day at the polls over their jobs – buy, did I get their attention!
Merkel’s reaction mirrors this insight and experience. When she learned that all of Europe’s 500 million people had been illegally wiretapped, there wasn’t a word. When the same was true also of her 82 million fellow Germans, not a single reaction. But when she found out that her own phone was also wiretapped, there was a complete outrage!
There is an important lesson here.
You can’t cause social change within the framework from the outside, but you can cause change from the outside if you make it personal to the incumbent powerholders.
There are many ways to make it personal without breaking the law or being creepy. One of the most overt ones is to threaten to take their jobs within the democratic system. Some of the more covert ones would be using their existing wiretapping against them, as has happened now.
If the old politicians need a taste of their own medicine to understand why the net must remain free, then perhaps that is what it takes.