On Freedom of Thought

Before taking Professor Moglen’s course, I paid very little attention to my own digital footprint. I wasn’t doing anything criminal – I thought to myself – and so I had nothing to worry about. It did not occur to me what disturbing assumption went into the making of that statement. Namely, that it was Okay for my thoughts to be monitored, for I was a good citizen after all. What if, and only what if, one day I seized to be a good citizen in the eyes of the state? What, then?

The Brits left my home country of Bahrain in 1971, only to be replaced by the Americans that same year. They operate a 7,000-man-strong Navy Base in a corner of Manama we’ve come to call American Alley. At school, my teachers were called Mrs. Ellsbury and Mr. Sipp. They taught me English and I’m sure they’d be happy to know that I made it to Columbia Law School. But what are they all doing in my country?

Bahrain grew rich on oil with its discovery in 1931. But for decades, many of the locals complained of discrimination, high unemployment and inadequate housing. The year 2011 marked a year of significant political unrest in the country as protestors gathered in the historical Pearl Roundabout to demand greater political freedoms and economic justice. My classmate Zahra lost her father who was tortured to death in one of Bahrain’s prisons for his work in the demonstrations. Another classmate Sara didn’t see her father for 5 years as he was sent to jail for treating the wounds of injured protestors. What if, and only what if, one day I seized to be a good citizen in the eyes of the state? What, then?

That the struggle for justice to persons is a prerequisite to the freedom of thought ought to be self-evident. As Professor Moglen writes, “Because the recognition of individual possibility, to allow each to be what she and he can be, rests inherently upon the availability of knowledge; the perpetuation of ignorance is the beginning of slavery.”

I have never written on this subject before, and I have always avoided talking about it. Maybe because I was too afraid to have an opinion of my own. But if I have to admit, having an opinion makes me feel alive. And my opinion is this: maybe one day my worldview will not be so aligned with that of the state. What, then?

I slowly began to regain my online privacy in the forms of anonymity, secrecy, and subsequently my autonomy. Google was the first to go. I switched completely to DuckDuckGo? , for it doesn’t track user activity and isn’t in the business of selling information to third parties. I deleted my Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts. As the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blowers told us, these platforms maintain records of what you like, who your friends are, and even your very private conversations with others. They then sell that information to third parties with the intention of understanding how you think in ways that you yourself are not aware of.

I still surf the internet, of course, and make use of its useful resources like Project Gutenberg and the Open Library. However, I do so more carefully. I operate a proxy server through Columbia’s computers such that my internet activity goes through Columbia before reaching a designated website and back. This way, the website can only see Columbia’s IP address rather than my own, thereby maintaining my anonymity online so far as possible.

I do this not because I have anything to hide, but simply for the sake of being free to think as I please and do as I please so long I am hurting nobody in the process. Thus, the need to maintain privacy online, as I see it, is for three primary reasons. One, to not be persecuted for having a view which does not conform to that which the people in power possess. Two, to be able to actually form views of my own as opposed to being fed what is right and what is wrong and having my views formed thereunder. And three, simply for the sake of freedom of thought, for it is the most liberating of all the freedoms. As the famous song went, Die Gedanken sind frei; thoughts are free.