In 1941, during his inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated:
The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the Middle Ages. It was written in Magna Charta.
Stirring oratory to be sure, but Manga Carta is perhaps better understood, to paraphrase Simon Schama, as the death certificate of despotism rather than the birth certificate of freedom. Yet even if stripped of its mythological status as the beating heart of democracy in the English speaking world, it remains important as it paved the way for the common law of England.
Fast forward eight hundred years and we are in as much need of access to the commons as did the peons of old. This is because the notion of a commons forms the most fundamental and ancient elements of a constitutional democracy. In the digital age, Jon Evans built on this notion when he observed:
Privacy is like voting. An individual’s privacy, like an individual’s vote, is usually largely irrelevant to anyone but themselves … but the accumulation of individual privacy or lack thereof, like the accumulation of individual votes, is enormously consequential.
In this context, the absence of privacy is like the absence of voting and has a devastating effect on individual thought and the capacity to dissent. Much as our forebears strove for the democratic aspiration to vote, the surveillance state and the mortgaging of our data for access to services require us to strive for the new democratic aspiration: the aspiration to privacy.
Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106) by barons and King John of England uploaded by Earthsound is licensed under Public Domain.