Human rights barrister Susie Alegre lays out how our most intimate human right has been undermined historically and is being undermined today by intrusive technologies on an unprecedented scale, and makes the case for legal interventions.
‘Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Our Minds’ (Atlantic Books, ISBN: 9781838951528, £20) is the latest in a flurry of books warning that our present technological landscape is putting control of our very thoughts and behaviour up for sale. It finds a niche in this crowded market thanks to author Susie Alegre’s expertise in human rights law, specifically in digital human rights.
The right to freedom of thought (distinct from free expression) is a cornerstone of human rights. The right to something so private, so internal, is easy to take for granted. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was an unwelcome reminder that companies, political parties, intelligence agencies, and other organisations are only too enthusiastic to intrude on the privacy of our minds and ‘rearrange the furniture’.
“What’s for sale can be banal, like a choice of underwear, or profound, like a belief in the power of national sovereignty,” Alegre warns.
‘Freedom to Think’ begins with a history of the concept of freedom of thought, efforts to protect it with documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its infringement. This history is expansive and covers intrusion of free thought in unexpected forms. Crucially, Alegre points out that the policing of thought has never been restricted to suppressing expression of thought, but runs far deeper. In fact, torture and the pseudoscience of physiognomy are intended to elicit guilty thoughts that may not have even existed.
Now, Alegre argues, these historical threats to freedom of thoughts have been “reborn in digital disguises” and “when propaganda can be automated and targeted to reach billions worldwide, it is an existential threat to humanity.” She presents an overview of 21st-century invasions of privacy, arguing that while the West looks at China with a sense of relief that such strict surveillance could never be implemented there, oppressive technologies not too far removed from China’s social credit scheme are being permitted to grow in our own back yard.
Throughout ‘Freedom to Think’, Alegre makes comparisons to the fictional dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. These are perhaps overused, but always apt.
Finally, Alegre asks how we can turn back the tide and reclaim our freedom of thought. This is the most original and distinctive section, drawing on Alegre’s legal background. While paying tribute to efforts to establish ethical frameworks for technology development and deployment Alegre argues that the trouble with these frameworks is that they are voluntary. “Human rights law is ethics with teeth,” she writes. “We need to move the discussion back to the law, specifically human rights law, and we must make it work for us.” She makes the case for legal interventions such as bans on surveillance advertising and public deployment of emotion recognition technology as essential for protecting our freedom of thought.
‘Freedom to Think’ is an effective wake-up call for those unaware of the scale of efforts to restrict and control our thoughts. Although much of its content will be familiar to readers with an interest in the human impact of digital technologies, it distinguishes itself thanks to its examination of the subject through the prism of human rights law.
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