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Edward Snowden and Civil Disobedience

Edward Snowden and Civil Disobedience

Do you believe that Edward Snowden’s acts of civil disobedience, in revealing details about the National Security Agency’s electronic spying program, are ethical?

At Santa Clara University, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics recently looked at this question in a conference called, “Conscience, Edward Snowden, and the Internet: Has Civili Disobedience Gone Too Far?” David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center, writes:

Snowden’s actions are best explained by situating him within the libertarian tradition of “information freedom” represented by figures like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. For these figures, information freedom largely means the “freeing of information” from its secret hold by massive institutions.

It is important here to note that the ethical issue isn’t so much what the information is about; the issue is that the information is being kept secret at all (as if secrecy is inherently evil) and ought to be freed, especially so people can make decisions. This is a new, Internet version of old-time libertarianism. The assumption is that the privacy of the isolated individual is pitted against the information-amassing, secrecy-obsessed, power-mad state or corporation.

But this makes things too simple, especially for what we expect in acts of civil disobedience. Two key differences between Snowden and Martin Luther King Jr’s example make this clear. The first pertains to what King called “negotiation,” the second of four key steps leading toward direct, nonviolent civil disobedience (the others are study, self-purification, and the direct action itself).

For King, the duty to negotiate revealed, among other things, a good-faith belief that even the segregationists running the government in cities like Birmingham, Alabama, were fellow human beings with a capacity to learn and be just. If Martin Luther King Jr could seek to negotiate with Bull Connor, Birmingham’s police chief, why couldn’t Edward Snowden transcend the libertarian cynicism toward government officials and try to speak with known NSA critics like Senators Ron Wyden and Rand Paul?

The full article by DeCosse is here.


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