The government has just announced plans to monitor social networking sites, in the name of “anti-terrorism”. Officials claim that they will not be monitoring or recording the content of communications between website members, but will be keeping tabs on who is being contacted and what networks are being created.
Although obviously intrusive on personal liberty and freedom, the more worrying aspect of this is the current government’s persistence in using two basic policy solutions to curb any illegal activity.
The first of these is to create new and more inventive ways to extend control and monitoring for “security reasons”. Examples include the growth of CCTV and tighter border restrictions.
The second is to create a bigger, more centralised government. As we have seen with the financial crisis, control and regulation seem to be the government’s solutions to any type of chaotic or unplanned system.
Hayek states in Law, Legislation, and Liberty that “Rationality of actions …demands complete knowledge of all relevant facts. A designer or engineer needs all the data and full power to control or manipulate them … to produce the intended result. But the success of action in society depends on more particular facts than anyone can possibly know.”
The arguments against these approaches (which also apply in the case of ID cards, monitoring of travel abroad and many other government proposals) are both economic and political. Yes, they undermine political freedom but they also make a fundamental economic error. Society cannot be improved and perfected by the collection of ever more information. This is true in the social as much as in the business sphere.
The government’s strategies of centralised control are therefore likely to be ineffective at achieving their objectives. Huge amounts of information will be gathered but not the subjective time and place specific knowledge available only to dispersed individuals. Monitoring social networking sites will allow the authorities to snoop but it is highly unlikely to prevent terrorism. Worse still, there is a significant economic cost to such activities.
New media websites like Facebook have grown and prospered precisely because they have been relatively free of regulation and state intervention. The Facebook platform has enabled new and entrepreneurial uses of personal content to be developed. A government policy of monitoring and control will discourage growth and innovation in this vibrant sector.