A view from the world of wizards

I greatly enjoyed reading a review of David Aaronovitch’s book   “Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists” in which the critic picked up on the metaphor of Muggles from the famous Harry Potter series.

Both of Aaronovitch’s parents were members of Communist Party of Great Britain and their devotion to the cause completely dominated every aspect of family life.  The Aaronovitches of those times  looked at the world through a very particular kind of lens and experienced it in ways that most of the rest of us never did.  Holidays would be taken with other Communists, typically in a so-called socialist country such as East Germany. The family dentist was a Communist, who sadly never made the transition to using local anaesthetics but more importantly had the correct view of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Anyone who might be brought to the house to fix a door or a wall would similarly always be a card carrying Party Member.

Certain famous and widely-read children’s comic books were never allowed past the Aaronovitch threshold because they were produced by an apparently vicious anti-union company.  Different  citrus fruits were considered inedible because of the political nature of the regime  in the country in which they were grown. And of course the capitalist press could never be relied upon to speak the truth, particularly in relation to anything to do with workers’ struggles or what was happening in the Warsaw Pact countries.

The Communists were the wizarding class, the rest of us  were, well,  sort of pitied and patronised as poor unfortunate Muggles who didn’t have the same insight into or knowledge of the way things truly worked in the world now or could work in the Utopian future they were trying to construct. We might get partial glimpses from time to time but not being a Communist was just a sad condition that pretty much ruled out any possibility of true enlightenment and meant you were forever on the outside of the righteous certainties of the Comrades.

Why is all this ringing a bell with me? Because I go to meetings of the IGF and ICANN. And also because I have just read the statement of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple who, in the name of liberty (no less) is resisting  a request from the FBI to help them unlock the phone of Syed Farook: the guy who, along with his wife, shot dead 14 people in San Bernadino, California. And Tim Cook has supporters. Fellow wizards such as within the American Civil Liberties Union who said for example

The government’s request….risks setting a dangerous precedent. If the FBI can force Apple to hack into its customers’ devices, then so too can every repressive regime in the rest of the world. Apple deserves praise for standing up for its right to offer secure devices to all of its customers.

In the crazy, upside down world of wizards Cook’s statement and the ACLU’s support make perfect sense. But the Muggles still rule.

So let me rephrase what the ACLU is saying: if US law enforcement officials are allowed to show there is no hiding place for terrorists who randomly kill their workmates at a party somehow this might encourage the Government of North Korea to consider behaving disrespectfully towards their own  citizens.

You couldn’t make it up. Apple may be very good at groovy designs but unless this is some sort of elaborate (but cynical) dog whistle double bluff they need to take a breath before venturing further into a civil rights debate. The ACLU? Maybe they are just a lost cause, which is such a shame given their glorious history.

The idea of the Rule of Law implies at least the possibility that the law can be enforced. What Apple and others have done, and appear to be proud of, is  create the potential to establish spaces where the law can never reach.  I guess Apple can hang out a sign in their shop windows that says something like this

Criminal dudes of the world! Come to us. Buy our products. We’ll keep you safe from those nasty policemen. Have no fear on that score.

I understand the concerns that Apple and others are voicing but they have reached the wrong conclusion about how to deal with them.  It’s comforting to know I am not the only person who thinks like that.  Silicon Valley has to find a different and better way to deal with the challenges of encryption. We Muggles expect nothing less.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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