It was a dreary January day in 2019 when Harry Miller got the call that changed his life.
A former policeman, the 54-year old entrepreneur now ran a business in Humberside. He was respected; moderately-successful; married.
He was also an avid Twitter user.
On that winter’s afternoon, Harry Miller was leaving Tesco supermarket when he received a call from one of his staff. The police were at his workplace. They wanted to talk to him.
Miller asked his staff to put them on. He got in his car, sat beside the plastic shopping bags, and listened to the chilling words that changed his life:
“(Mr. Miller), I am here to check your thinking.”
It was the beginning of a Thought Crime case that would rock the United Kingdom.
Coined by George Orwell in his grimdark classic Nineteen Eighty Four, a thought crime is when a government disapproves of an idea so much, they’ve made the act of thinking about it illegal.
Since Orwell was writing a grounded dystopia, he couldn’t have his evil government using magic mind-reading rays.
Instead, they used the Thought Police, a shadowy force that monitored your habits, diaries, and even the language you used to detect when you were thinking bad thoughts.
For readers in 1949, it was another terrifying sci-fi concept in a novel full of them.
But while the concept of thoughtcrime remains terrifying, it no longer seems so sci-fi.
In the UK, decades of successive governments have slowly turned what was once a piece of fiction into reality.
In Harry Miller’s case, that meant a police officer combing through his tweets, trying to determine what was going on in the father-of-four’s head.
That winter, the UK had been having a fierce public debate about laws allowing trans people to change their legal gender, and Miller had fired off some insensitive remarks like:
“I was assigned mammal at birth, but my orientation is fish. Don’t mis-species me,”
“your breasts are made of silicone” and “your vagina goes nowhere”.
But the actual specifics matter a lot less than the police reaction.
Despite the UK having some fairly strict Hate Speech laws – a reaction to racist violence in the ‘80s and ‘90s – nothing Miller tweeted had broken those laws.
Rather, he was being investigated because his totally-legal speech might be an indicator that the thoughts in his head were hateful.
In other words: a thoughtcrime.
While the Miller case became a cause celebre for free speech advocates, it wasn’t totally unique.
In an equally mad example, a Belfast student was charged with homophobia for drunkenly telling a mounted policeman:
“Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?”
Yet the misuse of Hate Speech Laws is just the tip of the UK’s Thought Crime iceberg. The stuff that gets media attention because none of us want to live in a world where we can’t tell a policeman his horse is fabulous.
But what happens when the government criminalizes thoughts no-one’s willing to defend? When the targets aren’t sympathetic dads?
That’s when things get really creepy.
Let’s take a look at terrorism.
The UK has a long history of responding to terrorist attacks by chipping away at privacy.
Starting after a wave of IRA bombings in the 1990s, CCTV cameras began sprouting up on every street corner in London.
Today, the British capital is the second most-surveilled city in the world after Beijing, with 420,000 CCTV cameras versus the Chinese capital’s 470,000.
But even Big Brother spy cams on every street pales in comparison to today’s laws.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act was intended as a response to the string of attacks that culminated in the tragic Manchester Arena Bombing.
Signed into law by Theresa May’s government in 2019, it was meant to make it easier to catch British terrorists.
But what it actually does is make it easier for the government to criminalize your thoughts.
Among its provisions are fifteen years in prison for viewing terrorist propaganda online, even if you only do so once.
That’s “viewing”. Not “sharing,” “supporting,” or “creating”.
You might be a worried parent, checking up on what their child is viewing online. You might simply be curious about how terrorists recruit people.
Either way, you’re now facing a decade and a half in jail.
It’s like Harry Miller’s trans tweets on steroids.
In Britain, it’s no longer committing a crime that’s illegal. It’s no longer even planning to commit a crime.
It’s having thoughts that might, one day, possibly lead you down a path towards ideas the government disagrees with.
The implications are both chilling, and utterly bizarre.
For example, one provision in the 2019 Act makes it illegal to:
“recklessly express support for, or publish images of flags, emblems or clothing… of a proscribed organisation.”
In normal-person speak, that means if you prance around London dressed like you’re in the IRA, while waving an ISIS flag painted with the phrase “I LOVE THE TAMIL TIGERS” you will go to prison.
The trouble is, a lot of the flags these armed groups use are perfectly legitimate flags.
In 2018, the Herald Scotland reported on a Scottish Police list of flags that “it might be a criminal offense” to fly.
Among them was the Irish tricolor, because of its association with the IRA; the flag of Palestine, because of its association with militant groups; and the Basque flag, because of its use by Basque separatists.
In other words, tweeting an emoji of the Irish flag in a way police decide “recklessly expresses support for” Irish Republicanism could land you in jail.
And don’t go thinking you’re safe if you live outside the UK.
The Just Security blog notes the Act can be interpreted to mean:
“A foreign citizen who urges people to support a U.K.-proscribed organization that is not banned in the foreign citizen’s country can be tried and punished in the U.K.”
Among those proscribed organizations is Hezbollah – not just its armed wing, but the whole Hezbollah – which is a legitimate political party in the Lebanese government.
So if you’re a Lebanese who just loves them some Hezbollah and tweet about it in your home country, you could be arrested the moment you arrive on British soil.
Now, we should note no-one has yet been arrested for waving the Irish tricolor, or sharing photos of Hezbollah rallies.
But the fact it’s technically possible shows just how far into thought crime law Britain is drifting.
Sometimes, this state creep even turns up in what turns you on.
In 2014, the government banned what it classed as “extreme pornography”.
But their definition of “extreme” was exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of mostly-middle aged, mostly-Conservative British dudes.
Spanking was banned. Watersports were outlawed. Female ejaculation was no more. And facesitting was a big no-no.
These laws only applied to pornography. If you still wanted to spank your wife at home while she sat on your face, the police couldn’t stop you.
But film yourselves doing it, or create fan art for your weird online spanking-facesit community; and you could be arrested.
The worst part was, the police really do arrest people for this stuff.
In 2011, a man went on trial in Stafford for being in possession of over 1,000 “extreme” images.
It was only during the trial that the jury discovered over 900 of those images involved fully-clothed adult models who weren’t engaging in any sexual activity.
The jury threw out the case, but the arrest had already sent a chilling message:
Be careful what you watch. Because it might not technically be illegal, but if we don’t like it, we will arrest you anyway.
Or, as George Orwell might have said: “Big Brother is watching you.”
Luckily, this story isn’t all doom and gloom.
At the moment, common sense is mostly prevailing.
Harry Miller’s thoughtcrime was struck down by a judge, who declared:
“The claimants’ tweets were lawful and there was not the slightest risk that he would commit a criminal offence by continuing to tweet.”
The gay horse comment, too, failed to result in a prosecution.
But just because the forces of sense are winning today doesn’t mean they always will.
In 2018, the UK police began investing in AI that can supposedly detect crimes before they happen – AKA the plot for the not-so-cheery “utopia” of Minority Report.
The idea is the AI will sift through terabytes of data and identify suspects whose behavior indicates they may soon commit illegal acts.
Once identified, those people will receive an “intervention” by the police. Even if they have no intention of doing something wrong.
It’s a development not even Orwell could’ve predicted.
The UK may not be a dystopian police state just yet, but dystopias aren’t created all at once.
They creep up gradually, bit by bit, until suddenly you’re living in Airstrip One without even realizing it.
If Britain doesn’t act soon to stop this drift, we may discover that 2024 or 2034 are more terrifying than 1984 could ever hope to be.