Remember when George Orwell’s “1984” was just a good piece of scary fictional writing?
And the book’s “Big Brother” was just a scary, omnipotent government overlord?
And “Big Brother is watching you” was just a scary but fictional warning?
Well, guess what?
If you write, speak, blog, email or otherwise professionally communicate to, for, or with someone, your words are about to be subject to storage, monitoring, cataloguing, inspection and analysis and who knows what else by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
At an April 4 DHS press briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the issuance of a request for proposal for “media monitoring services.” The selected contractor would compile a database of more than 290,000 news sources, including “online, print, broadcast, cable, radio, trade and industry publications, local sources, national/international outlets, traditional news sources, and social media.”
The contractor must monitor, track, and instantaneously translate into English the media coverage from more than 100 languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Russian. It must be able to create unlimited data tracking, statistical breakdown, and graphic analyses on any coverage on an ad-hoc basis.
An online overview of search results in terms of online articles and social media conversations must be available 24/7 to “users” on a password-protected, online platform.
How long will DHS retain the data? We don’t know.
Who might have access to the data in addition to DHS? We don’t know.
What assurances are there that the data won’t be used for political purposes? We don’t know.
The database is designed to monitor “top media influencers.”
But how about this, direct from the RFP:
“For each influencer found, present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer . . .”
And that’s why non-professionals – that is, all Americans – should care about this proposal.
The DHS database would not only collect and store the writings and speeches of anyone who communicates for a living. It would also analyze those communications for what they write and speak about the government and its activities, and what the writers have said in the past, and in what venue they did their work.
The proposal, in short, is a textbook example of the chilling effect that government intrusion can have on free speech.
How many “top media influencers” might pull their punches if they knew that government “users” of their stories and op eds are looking over their shoulders, analyzing and evaluating the “patriotism” of their material?
How many foreign writers and bloggers, even those from friendly nations, might remain silent if they seek visas from the United States?
In such cases the public is deprived of the free exchange of ideas that has made the United States the poster child for open discussion for more than 200 years.
The First Amendment reads, in part: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...” A federal agency that monitors such communications skates extremely close to that bright line.
Especially under an administration that perpetually rails at “fake news.”
The RFP zeroes in on media. But it’s a threat to every American who cherishes freedom of speech and of the press.
Anyone who writes or speaks professionally through traditional or social media, and everyone else, should be very afraid.
Rick Morain, retired longtime editor-publisher of the Jefferson Herald, continues to write a weekly column for the newspaper. He also serves on the Iowa Public Information Board.