Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who's afraid of the NSA? The Roles of Government and the Corporation

Throughout the series of NSA surveillance scandals, what has surprised me the most is the public's response. While out and about I have heard people talking politics, something that has rarely happened to me in America. Everyone cares, and everyone has an opinion. While overhearing these shockingly loud (perhaps Americanesque is the best term for this phenomenon) conversations, I have also noticed something which troubles me. People are angry with 'the government' for this perceived slight, yet at the same time are ok with voluntarily giving the exact same personal information to big corporations (Facebook, Google, Apple, etc). Why would people be afraid of the government and not of the corporation, when they are doing very similar, if not the exact same things? Who is accountable to whom?

The role of government in its citizens' lives is relatively straightforward. It exists to protect its citizens, and to provide services. Its legitimacy may be derived in a variety of ways, which is dependent on the form of the government. In America, our representative constitutional republic holds elections where we either directly or indirectly select decision makers for ourselves. The government is not out there to 'get us', it has no reason to individually seek out and destroy certain parts of our society unprovoked. All the government asks is that we participate in the democratic process, fund it by paying our taxes, and do not try to overthrow it or create civil disorder. Government's role in its citizen's lives can be quite different than this, especially when it is not a democratic institution and it does not derive its authority from a popular mandate. It is also common for government officials and legislative bodies to work to maintain or augment their power, primarily in the form of being re-elected, but occasionally by other means. However, even with this potential case of abuse of power, the persecution or repression of individuals is not a guarantee.

Contrast this with the relationship between citizens and corporations. A corporation's sole purpose is to make money for its shareholders and owners. It does usually provide some sort of service to its customers (whether this service is essential, useful or even beneficial is another matter), but its motivating factor is profits. The customer has something which the corporation wants (money), and is ACTIVELY trying to get. This is not the symbiotic (and often mutually beneficial) relationship between a government and its people. 

So why be afraid of one's government? Sure there are many examples of dictatorial regimes around the world suppressing even the most basic voting rights of its population, but this is a far cry from the domestic situation in the United States. The United States of America was not created to oppress people, or to exploit them, but to free them from the colonialism of the British. The true problem is when corporations impose their interests on elected officials or other governing bodies. By exerting their influence (whether this is through political contributions or PR campaigns), they can corrupt the role of government as steward of the people. This does NOT make a government inherently evil or malevolent, but is more than anything a reminder of the motivation of for-profit companies and the potential for abuse, especially if they work to affect political change. Before blaming 'the government', consider the other potential perpetrators who have more to gain and more reasons for acting against your interests.

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