Over the past few years, questions and concerns have been raised about the effects that modern technology is having on society, and how it affects civil liberties and freedoms.
Over the next five weeks, these effects will be explored at Common Sense.
Is the death of cash bad?
It’s undeniable that contactless and digital payments have revolutionised the way we interact with the world. With more and more businesses only accepting digital transactions for payment, it certainly does seem as if this is the future of commerce.
Online banking is quite a convenient tool. Being able to send money to a person wherever they are in the world in a matter of seconds is something past generations could only dream of. Digitally paying for items, combined with next day delivery service, has numbered the days of having to physically enter a shop.
Digital payments have created a culture of convenience amongst consumers. Convenience, being the key word here, begs the question: is there a catch to this?
In the last few years there have been several concerns raised regarding banking companies, and whether or not a cashless society is truly beneficial for citizens or if it could spell the end of absolute financial autonomy. Many are fearful that such centralised power could be open to abuse by banks, manifesting itself in the form of political discrimination or a self-appointed role of the ‘morality police’.
A recent example of this was the Farage/Coutts scandal, where it was revealed that the bank’s justification for removing the former UKIP Party leader’s accounts from their platform was in part due to his political beliefs that ‘[went against Coutts’] position as an inclusive organisation’.
In December 2020 Visa and MasterCard announced they’d be blocking purchases to adult site PornHub, following a report from the New York Times that alleged the website allowed videos without the consent of the person featured, including revenge pornography, onto the platform.
They subsequently removed approximately 10 million videos within 24 hours following the article’s release.
It was also alleged that the website ‘monetised child rape’ and that it did not have enough safeguards in place to distinguish between legal and illegal content.
The concern that many have from these cases – especially the former – is the existence of a powerful technocracy that can seemingly, for any reason, remove the ability for a person or business to receive or make payments.
It could be argued that the latter case was for moral and ethical reasons. The former case, however, is a demonstrable example of why people are concerned.
“Libertarianism can only go so far”
I am a strong believer in free market enterprise and capitalism. I believe in the right to ownership of private property, and I am generally against the idea of state intervention into private business, whether financially or personally. The free market should mean exactly that – free.
The emergence of a technocracy however has, admittedly, tested my resolve. Libertarianism can only go so far.
There are two issues I have with technocracy. The first is the push to remove cash, which removes the competition of the method of payment itself. The second is the centralisation of economic power that comes with it.
My issue with the former is a straightforward one: the elimination of competition. Without cash, digital payments would be the only option that consumers would have, which in turn would embolden banks and finance companies to increase the price of their services. It would give them a monopoly on payment itself.
The latter is where it becomes more concerning. A cashless society would give banks unprecedented financial power over individuals and society itself, as the decisions of all financial purchases would be solely at their mercy.
As much as one may agree with some justifications for banning a user or company from their platforms (the Visa/MasterCard-Pornhub scenario springs to mind), the mere ability to be able to make those decisions worries many.
At best, these institutions would find themselves with the ability to essentially be the financial ‘morality police’, being able to decide who is able to make purchases, when, to whom, and on what. Any transaction they deem to be ‘against their values’ (which is becoming increasingly subjective) would be refused.
At worst, they would be used as a vital tool in the culture wars. Political lobbies – on both the left and the right – would seize the chance to fill the power vacuum. If either side managed to influence a person in a position of power and/or influence at the bank, it would represent a serious threat to both democracy and individual liberty.
Banks would be used as tools to disrupt (or halt altogether) transactions by political enemies. If you were deemed to be using language or expressing opinions that ‘didn’t align with the bank’s values’, you couldn’t function.
Legally, the bank couldn’t stop you from saying certain things, but they could ban you from using their platform.
Imagine, for example, that a Christian pastor preached against same sex marriage. If Stonewall, or another LGBT organisation, managed to influence senior officials, and convince them that preaching against same sex marriage violated its values, the bank would simply ‘debank’ the pastor.
This would, essentially, undermine free speech and expression, which is a legal right in the UK. It would mean that banks, not the law, could decide what can and can’t be said, practically.
In the modern world it’s impossible to function without a bank account. It’s one thing to believe in free markets and libertarianism, but what happens when the company becomes the market itself?
Are civil liberties for sale?
A free market should be exactly that – free. Technocracy is a threat to this. If private companies can decide what an individual spends their money on, then by definition it is not a ‘free’ market.