Michael O’Loughlin: No, I don’t accept cookies
Having lived ‘off the grid’ for years, I resent being forced to go online to access services
The State colludes with the tech giants in forcing you to put your personal information online, and pay for the services of private providers. Photograph: iStock
A couple of decades ago, I was an illegal immigrant. Not only that, I was also an illegal native. A better way of putting it, perhaps, is that for a few years I managed to live off the societal grid in various countries. That is to say, I was not registered as resident in any country, I was not filing tax returns in any jurisdiction, I did not have an official address, a bank account, or any bills in my name. Officially, I barely existed. This came about as much by chance as anything else. At that period in my life I found myself moving around from country to country for a combination of reasons. One day, I closed down my bank account in one country, and moved to another where I didn’t register with any institution, or open a bank account, because it was just too complicated. It wasn’t a long-term plan, but to my amazement I soon found out that it was possible to live off the grid, in a cash economy, and hop back and forth from country to country. I need hardly point out that this was just before the era of internet-based surveillance and control.
The situation gave me a certain outlaw satisfaction. I continued to work, to attend meetings, to write for newspapers and occasionally appear on radio and television, without being officially there. It led to some hilarious situations. A film for which I had written the screenplay was about to start shooting. The first day of principal photography is an important day for writers, as it’s one of the few times when you have any leverage. If you haven’t been paid in full for the rights, you can shut down the film, which tends to focus a producer’s mind. When the producer asked for my bank account details so he could make an immediate transfer of the money owing, I informed him that I didn’t have one. Somewhat bemused, he agreed to pay me in cash. As this was a substantial amount, this entailed us driving around the city drawing the maximum amount from each bank branch. After a few hours he deposited me at home with a bulging plastic shopping bag.
I recognise that living off the grid was only possible with the downright indulgence of others on the grid. The apartment I lived in was paid for by a shell company in Aruba, somehow linked to an equity fund dabbling in film financing. A friendly travel agency arranged flights and hotels; for car rentals abroad I had access to a production company credit card. Eventually, living off the grid became impossible, both for personal reasons and also because of September 11th, which led to a Europe-wide heightened control of financial transactions and identity. So I came down from the hills, opened a bank account, got a job, got a PPS number and rejoined society. So far, so good. But recently, certain developments in Ireland have made me think again about that experience, and how it taught me how much of our life in society is dependent on providing information about ourselves.
People need internet access and devices which they can’t afford in order just to do their homework
Increasingly, I find myself dealing with State institutions and Government departments who insist on conducting all business online. There was never any consultation with the citizens: it was imposed, and there is no arguing with it – I know, because I’ve tried. Of course you are free not to co-operate, in which case you simply won’t get paid. In this way, the State colludes with the tech giants in forcing you to put your personal information online, and pay for the services of private providers. And we have had enough evidence in recent years of how little they are interested in safeguarding our privacy. Everybody’s happy: the big corporations make handsome profits, and government have increased powers of surveillance. I baulk at this. You may dismiss me and my ilk as Luddites but that misses the point: this is, in fact, a human rights issue. Forcing people to live their lives online is a fundamental breach of their human rights.
This point was forcefully argued by the American author Dave Eggers in an article marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He points out, for example, that article 26 of that document lays down that education should be free and that everyone has a right to it. However, it is increasingly the case that people need internet access and devices which they can’t afford in order just to do their homework. In addition, as he puts it, “When any government service requires the ownership of a smartphone to gain access to basic services, then their rights are being compromised.”
Then there is the matter of surveillance. All tracking is a kind of surveillance. Obviously, there are cases where it’s justifiable in law enforcement, and can be carried out under the strict supervision of the courts. But we have a right not to be tracked as a default position. Which is to say, we have a right to live an analogue life if we so desire, to live our lives completely offline, or as near enough as possible.
No, I don’t accept cookies.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet