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As anti-Google protests turn nasty, privacy campaigners need to ponder the ethics of law-breaking

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Simon Davies

Recent international outcry over the NSA’s transgressions has taken a noteworthy turn. Over the past few weeks, Google has been the target of increasingly vicious public protests over both its complicity in the activity of the security agencies and its role in the global corrosion of privacy.

These are not peaceful demonstrations. Activists in the San Francisco Bay area have targeted the advertising giant’s vehicles and its employees, blocking the movements of key staff, slashing the tyres of Google buses and picketing homes. One aim is to paralyse the vehicle fleet that ferries employees to the company’s Mountainview campus

Google has been hit by escalating protests since 2010 over a spectrum of issues.

Google has been hit by escalating protests since 2010 over a spectrum of issues.

One activist from “Counterforce” explained: “Our problem is with Google, its pervasive surveillance capabilities utilized by the NSA, the technologies it is developing, and the gentrification its employees are causing in every city they inhabit.”

The tactics have divided local commentators. While often agreeing with the sentiments expressed by the activists, many feel the actions are unacceptable.

Others, however, believe the stakes are high enough to justify such attacks. Natasha Lennard from Salon defended the actions, observing:

Google’s insidious creep into nearly every aspect of modern life – from information searching, to communications, to mapping, to home heating – has, at every stage, been accompanied by an enthusiastic P.R. operation, aligning “Googliness” and goodness. Like Counterforce, we should all call bullshit.”

Continuing in that vein, Lennard opined that the violence was justified:

“Certainly, I concede that it will hardly uproot Google’s hegemonic position, nor will the surveillance state be dismantled… Civic norms in our current epoch entail the forgoing of privacy, the enabling of a totalized surveillance state, the steady displacement of poor residents by wealthier implants in all major metropolises… These are our current civic norms; they deserve some violent broaching.

Google should no longer get away with playing the good guy.

Privacy issues surrounding the NSA have now built such a head of steam that some legislators are proposing bills that would shut down the water supply to the agency’s data centres. This is just two steps removed (ethically) from citizen action to destroy the water supply pipelines (although admittedly a very important two steps).

Privacy issues surrounding the NSA have now built such a head of steam that some legislators are proposing bills that would shut down the water supply to the agency’s data centres.

For me – like so many activists – this discussion is all too real. Whether it is right to break or bend the law is never far from an campaigner’s conscience.

Back in the mid 1990’s for example, I started a prolonged battle against the rise of CCTV surveillance cameras, which for some years had been sprouting like a noxious weed throughout the UK. They eventually infested every element of urban life, in cinemas, public toilets, taxis and trains, bus shelters, street corners and public housing.

The CCTV phenomenon had also spread globally, with cameras appearing even in the smallest villages from Alaska to Italy. There seemed no way to stop the growth of this industry.

Our supporters worked very hard over several years to turn around public opinion, but we failed. Sure, we’d embarked on some creative and famous campaigns, supported by blanket media coverage (I did more than a thousand media interviews on that subject over five years) but the effort was to little avail.

We did achieve some interesting results in terms of regulation of the cameras, but this seemed to do little more than feed the surveillance industry. The fact is public opinion was on the side of the technology, even though all criminological studies said the cameras hardly made any difference to crime levels. They did, however, have the effect of making people “feel” safer, and that’s all governments needed to support the industry.

Why did the campaign go so terribly wrong? I’ve been a reasonably effective activist since I was a teenager, usually leaving a trail of institutional destruction in my wake (often successfully so). Now, all those years later, my strategic skills had failed.

Google’s insidious creep into nearly every aspect of modern life – from information searching, to communications, to mapping, to home heating – has, at every stage, been accompanied by an enthusiastic P.R. operation, aligning “Googliness” and goodness.

I suspect one reason for this failure was a disastrous mis-judgment in the summer of 1998 in the delightful seaside city of Brighton in the UK.

At the time I had the support of militant environmental groups, and around a hundred of their activists had gathered to take action against the cameras. On the day in question, as I was about to give the tactical briefing, I decided to passionately dissuade them from destroying the cameras. Instead, I argued, they should ridicule the technology. “Stay within the law” I said.

It was unstable advice. Had I instead motivated the protesters to destroy the technology there would have been a domino effect of similar strikes across the country. OK, maybe that action still wouldn’t have changed the course of the technology, but it would have raised the stakes.In hindsight – given the present ubiquity of the technology – their destruction may well be morally justified.

Besides, my advice to stay within the law wasn’t resting on a particularly strong ethical foundation. Animal rights campaigners, peace activists and environmental groups had clearly established over many years that destruction of property could be justified if the goal was squarely in the public interest. There have been many occasions where courts have exonerated defendants charged with criminal damage – and their cause has usually been strengthened as a result. Committing a crime to prevent a greater crime is actually protected in English law.

Like the anti-Google campaigners, activists often struggle with the ethics of breaking the law to achieve their goals. In that respect the fight for privacy is no different to the fight against polluters or the arms industry.

In 2006, for example, some UK local government authorities had been discovered covertly equipping mobile rubbish bins with tiny RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips to monitor household waste.

The chips, which are about the size of a one-cent piece, contain identifying data that links the individual bin to the relevant household and which provide the basis to collect data on the weight of rubbish being left for collection. Council’s argued that they were under an obligation under European law to install the devices in order to improve recycling rates. The issue was that they never bothered telling anyone about this project.

Like the anti-Google campaigners, activists often struggle with the ethics of breaking the law to achieve their goals. In that respect the fight for privacy is no different to the fight against polluters or the arms industry.

The technology soon became widely known as “Bin Bugs” and as the story spread like wildfire from region to region across Britain, local residents took up arms against the receptacle menace.

Within two weeks media was reporting “A huge revolt against wheelie-bin spy bugs is sweeping Britain, with thousands of defiant households removing the electronic devices and either dumping them or posting them back to their local town hall.”

“The protesters are ignoring threats of prosecution for criminal damage in their anger at having their rubbish secretly monitored by council chiefs”.

Officials had confirmed that one of the biggest shows of defiance had been in Bournemouth, where councillors estimated that 25,000 bugs – one-third of the total – have been removed.

Enter Martin Meeks, a retired Chief Inspector with the Special Branch and now living in the Wiltshire village of Winterbourne Monkton. Spearheading the local “Ban the Bug” campaign Meeks was photographed defiantly holding aloft a chip that he had torn from a bin. His action had a dramatic motivating effect.

Was Chief Inspector Meeks right to destroy public property in the cause of privacy? The answer is not a simple one. There’s no “one size fits all” ethical framework. People are motivated by both passion and reason in such matters, and make decisions on the basis of what feels right – and juries increasingly recognise those dynamics. Meeks wasn’t fighting bin bugs; he was fighting government secrecy and hypocrisy, and those goals certainly might justify destruction of property.

It remains to be seen whether the activism against Google will be seen in such a light, but there should be no doubt that the stakes are now sufficiently high to entertain a discussion about the ethics of law-breaking in that matter.