The process of destroying freedom often starts with steps that seem reasonable. If you want to strip everyone of their civil liberties, start with a group everyone despises. Few groups fit this bill better than paedophiles.
There is a famous and oft-quoted text that reads:
In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then … they came for me … And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
The poem is generally attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), though there is some debate about both the attribution and the wording. But no matter: the sentiment is clear – it’s important we recognise dangers even when they are not targeted at ourselves.
But the poem has a weakness. It addresses our need to consider the fate of ‘others’, but it doesn’t extend that unambiguously to ‘despised others’. And this is where the erosion of our freedoms more typically starts.
The greatest resistance to an attempt to take away a freedom we cherish occurs when the law or regulation is first made. Once a rule is established, prohibiting this or regulating that, then many will see the battle as lost and will put their energies into the next fight. Little by little, freedom becomes eroded.
The trick, then, as far as the authorities are concerned, is to make the regulation seem reasonable. Phrases such as ‘for your safety’ or ‘good for society’ are often deployed whenever the result of a new law is to place limits on your freedoms.
It works even better if the restrictions affect a minority group within society that the majority despise or fear or for whom they can raise no compassion. And paedophiles are to today’s society what the Jews were to the Nazis. Who cares if paedophiles have their freedoms stripped away: they brought it on themselves, right? Surely they don’t deserve the same benefits and liberties as the rest of us.
The latest proposed restrictions in the UK would ban convicted paedophiles from social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo. The ban would be implemented by the sites themselves, based on email addresses supplied by the Government. Paedophiles would be obliged to supply details of the email accounts they use.
Presumably, this is an attempt to prevent the cyberstalking of children. There is some debate about the extent to which this happens, and whether it presents a genuine threat. But I have sympathy for the attitude that one case is one too many.
The scheme is clearly unworkable. Computer forensic experts can tell you that the most active (and potentially dangerous) paedophiles are technically adept. They would know how to use proxies, TOR, wardriving, cyber-cafes and other technologies and techniques to hide their identities. Gmail and Hotmail accounts can be created in seconds. And most social networking sites are based outside the UK’s jurisdiction.
It might also have the opposite effect to the one desired. The restrictions would affect only convicted paedophiles. Those yet to be caught could still roam Facebook. And, believing that such sites are now safer places, children might be tempted to let their guard down.
What is more sinister for all of us is that this new rule would establish a mechanism by which the authorities can designate a group that is to be denied the use of some portion of the Internet. And the actual restriction would be imposed not by government authorities but by commercial organisations – the Government gets to keep its hands clean.
How easy it would be to start extending this mechanism to other groups, other parts of the net, other areas of life. If someone notices, just blame it on ‘mission creep’. Because we feel a natural distaste for those branded as paedophiles, who will oppose this regulation? After all, ‘it’s for the children’. Once it is accepted, though, there will be little to stop its expansion to embrace us all.