I've talked before about the rise of corporate feudalism. As it emerged in the Middle Ages, Feudalism was not entirely a bad thing - it created an environment where there was a structure to protect each other from the predations of others.
Sadly, what is emerging in the world of Corporate Feudalism is less about mutual protection and sharing of resources than it is about control. Control of wealth, control of information and because it takes people to use information, control of people.
So, when a company like Chevron moves to gain access to the e-mail accounts of activists who have been protesting the company's activities in Central America, it comes as no surprise. Should you be scared? Absolutely. Consider that Chevron is a corporate entity, not an agency of the law itself. Where (in theory) a law enforcement agency is bound to treat the information gathered in the course of an investigation with a degree of caution, Chevron is not bound by any such constraints. Should they choose to, they can not only access this data, but release it in whatever form suits their purposes; or mine it for information patterns that can be used against individuals and entire groups.
If that isn't terrifying enough, consider that the information used can easily be used to infer where an individual is at any given moment in time.
No, this isn't just chilling - it is terrifying. The implications are far reaching, as it places information about private individuals in the hands of those whose interest in that information is at best questionable. If you accept the notion that the rule of law stays the hand of an overreaching state (something that is becoming ever more questionable), then we must ask what stays the hand of a transnational corporation when it has access to this kind of information?
The timing of this is particularly troubling for Canadians who have recently learned that their government has been compiling lists of "enemies", and using that information in ways that are as yet unclear. If, at the level of our ministers they are gathering "enemy lists" (how delightfully paranoid of them), one can imagine what is going on at other levels of the power structure. The Harper Conservatives' CIMS database is known to have played a key role in the Robocalls Voter Suppression Fraud. What is to stop them, or any other entity which accrues an enormous database of information on people from using that information as a weapon against people?
We have to recognize further that these kinds of rulings affect far more than citizens of the United States. It affects citizens of countries who utilize the services of these American organizations. It gives a corporation which is willing to impose its own notion of "the rule of law" (would this be "rule of corporate policy"?) on people who are not in any way affiliated with the corporation. Perhaps equally evil is the prospect that if anyone who protests a corporations actions is even remotely affiliated with that corporation, they could find themselves fired for activities utterly unrelated to their work. Consider working for a company that Chevron owns. It may not be branded as a Chevron company, it may be operating as a wholly owned subsidiary. An employee of that company could find themselves terminated for "acting against the interests of the company", not because they had taken actions against their direct employer, but rather because they chose to protest the actions of the company that owns their employer - a fact that they may not even have been aware of. Consider, for a moment, in Canada, the Petro Canada brand is owned and operated by SunCor now. That isn't apparent from the public branding of the stations, and I would suspect that a lot of employees who work at those stations are unaware of that relationship.
Freedom of speech is a legitimate right. The question that we now have to start asking is whether we are willing to grant corporations the right to engage in surveillance - either in the present or retroactively. In the absence of meaningful ways to stay the corporate hand's reach in today's world, I believe that we need to think very carefully before handing over information of any sort to these entities. More importantly, there is a very real dialogue that must occur as to the extent of the rights and privileges accorded to these entities and how the structures to ensure that they do not overreach should be enacted.