Jonah Goldberg

But the same crowd celebrating Google's decision has generally been quiet about, for example, public health surveys that ask doctors to report all sorts of really private information for epidemiological purposes. Of course, researchers are blind to the identities of the patients, too. But if you're going to consider it a grotesque infringement on personal liberty for the government to find out that some anonymous person Google-searched "lesbian love goats," you'd think you'd also be upset by the National Institutes of Health cataloging how many people who fit your description have had prostate exams in the last year. The intrusion is at least as bad, but because no one imagines that Dick Cheney cares about your prostate - yet! - the First Amendment thumpers don't offer a peep.

But there is a larger issue worth considering. It has become something of an article of faith that technology is always on the side of liberty. In the old Soviet Union, the Xerox machines were chained up at night in order to prevent unauthorized photocopying. (Of course, they weren't called "Xerox machines" but "Glorious People's Photostatic Replicator" or "Trabant Machine" or some such.) The Soviet authorities recognized that information technology was the enemy of totalitarianism. Freedom of the photocopier was not only freedom of the press, but freedom to communicate, which lies at the core of all liberty.

The Internet age has seemingly confirmed this. In China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other oppressive regimes, Internet usage is severely policed because the free-flow of information is seen as a threat to the regime.

But even if the liberating power of technology is an iron law of history in the long run, that doesn't mean that in the short run technology can't be on the side of oppression - and the short run can last a lifetime. After all, the Soviets used technology to oppress their people for 70 years.

Technology brings change and requires adaptation - by the state and the individual alike. It's not obvious how we should view Google searches, for example. Are they like letters or diary entries or something else entirely? It's revealing that no sane person would condone local libraries giving stacks of hardcore porn to little kids. But some Internet voluptuaries see nothing wrong with pretty much the exact same thing over the Web.

This is a subject worth arguing about. But it's difficult to take people seriously when their core argument is, "If Dick Cheney's for it, I'm against it."


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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