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Space to Think

Adam Chalmers on why online anonymity is the next step in academic freedom.

drawing of computer computer

drawing of computer

Without new ideas, society stagnates. Without privacy, there are no new ideas.

We have a right to develop new ideas in private before sharing them with the world at large. Ideas like feminism or so- cial healthcare are now cornerstones of our society, but years ago they were new and frightening. Controversial ideas like that need to be developed in private among trusted friends and peers before they’re released to a hostile society. Sydney University has a proud history of fostering such ideas. In the 70s, the philosophy department split in two when academics demanded the right to teach units on fem- inism. Courses on Marxism were institut- ed while the Communist Party Dissolution Act was fresh in our minds. Cultures change, but this requires ideas to be de- veloped in private before being presented them to the world.

The university supports us in thinking these ideas. Their libraries, lecturers, tutorial discussions all help us develop our thoughts and opinions. And in the past this learning process was private. No-one could monitor which books you borrowed. No-one could bug your private conversations with a professor or friend. No-one could read your mind and discover the ideas you were engaging with.

But today the university’s tools of research and discussion are no longer private, be- cause they are all online. Our search

es through journal databases, emails to lecturers, discussion groups and digital notes to ourselves are all online. And to- day, nothing online is private. In the age of mass surveillance, everything you do online can be stored, compiled and delved through. All our valuable ideas can be read by snooping friends, malicious hackers, or overzealous surveillance states. This offends the deepest principles of free thought and academic privacy that institutions like our university are supposed to not only defend, but cherish and nurture.

So chancellors, deans and provosts every- where should take a stand: restore the pri- vacy that was taken from your universities, scholars and students. Protect us from the prying eyes that would destroy our ideas

before they can defend themselves. The situation isn’t hopeless. There are many ways to resist. Please—refuse to hand over students data to the state. Install the Tor browser on all university computers. Use HTTPS and strong encryption on all internal traffic. Encrypt our mail. Join the civil liberties groups which speak out against unnecessary mass surveillance. Emulate Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other digital companies and disclose the numbers and details of government information requests.

Without brave, controversial, unfashion- able ideas, society stagnates. The university was once a safe place for the pursuit of such ideas. And it can be once again.

 

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