National Press Club

On The Kalb Report: Thomas L. Friedman on where freedom and security clash in the age of hyper connectivity

February 13, 2014 | By Gil Klein |

Photo/Image: Julie Fischer McCarter

In a wide-ranging discussion of freedom vs. security with host Marvin Kalb Monday, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman came down on the side of freedom – for the most part.

“Freedom,” Friedman said on "The Kalb Report," “is the ability, desire, aspiration to live in a context where I can realize my full potential as a human being.”

That, he said, is what the initial Arab Spring revolutions were all about. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during that uprising, and he said the Egyptian people were fed up with a corrupt, top-down hierarchy that had stifled the aspirations of the common people for decades.

“It was the most apolitical political event I ever covered,” he said.

Yes, it had to do with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and corruption, but it had more to do with the common Egyptian seeing how they lived “in a rigged game,” he said. People in other countries could seek their aspirations and they could not.

But in the context of freedom vs. security, Kalb asked, where did Friedman come down on Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s surveillance techniques?

Friedman said he believed Snowden should come back to the United States and stand trial for what he did because it would open up the issue of freedom vs. security for the American people.

What the case has exposed, he said, is that technology has gone way ahead of legal protections and also exposed what the government is capable of doing. Yet repeated investigations have not revealed any specific case of abuse on the rights of common citizens.

“It was a vital case that was inevitably going to happen, and it’s healthy that it’s happened and we are having this discussion,” he said. “I also think we do need protection from rising threats. I think that a trial could be just a huge teaching moment and one that would trigger healthy debate and reform.”

But technology has eroded the privacy of everyone, he said. As an avid golfer, he has bought clubs on the Internet. Then when he read an Israeli newspaper online, up pops an ad for golf clubs from the same company in the middle of the page.

“So I find that a little creepy,” he said.

One day he had breakfast in a New York hotel with a Middle East diplomat, and a couple of days later he saw an anti-Arab blog with a photo of him and the diplomat with the caption, “Tom Friedman getting instructions from a Middle East diplomat.”

“I don’t know how you fight it, so you just go with it,” he said.

Just in the decade since he wrote his best-selling book, “The World is Flat,” so much has changed, he said.

“Facebook didn’t exist, twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was a prison, applications were what you sent to college, big data was a rap star and Skype was a typo,” he said. “We have gone from being connected to hyper connected. And it is changing every job, every workplace.”

The “Kalb Report” is a joint project of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College, George Washington University, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.