The Internet Must Be Defended (2): a Transparency (R)evolution?

(A few more random rabble-rousing thoughts: Part 1 here)

For a few years now there has been a tendency (and no, it’s not an organised conspiracy – most of the time), to try to contain the uncontrolled development of the Internet by many different states and non-state organisations. Here’s some examples:

1. China has basically created its own island system, that could potentially be entirely disconnected from the rest of the Net and still function. Within this system it can censor sites, control the flow of information and so on. This is not a case of an isolated authoritarian state: the system has been created largely by western hardware and software developers.

2. The development of new ways of accessing information – through Web apps, branded social networking software and so on – means that increasingly users are experiencing the Net (and more specifically the Web) through controlled corporate channels.  The Web is in many ways the most immediately vulnerable feature of the Net.

3. There is a worldwide movement by states, pressured by the USA and others, to put into law restrictive new measures that redefine all information as intellectual property, introduce digital locks, and more widespread end-user licensing etc. (i.e. moving the software model of property rights to all information objects). This is equivalent perhaps to the ‘enclosure’ of the commons in C17th Britain, which underlay the rise of private capital.

4. Under the guise of counter-terrorism or fighting organised crime, states, again pressured by the USA but some entirely of their own volition, are introducing comprehensive surveillance measures of online communications – it started with traffic analysis and is moving increasingly to content too. This also leverages the trend identified in 2. Relationship modelling is where it’s at now. Basically, it isn’t so much that your digital doubles sitting in multiple databases, but they are walking and talking on their own to others, whether you like it or not, and it is the nature and quality of their interactions that is being monitored.

Wikileaks is a thread because it represents the opposite of these trends to closure and the retaking of control of the Internet. It’s not because Wikileaks is itself particularly threatening, it’s the fact that it is making visible these underlying trends and may cause more people to question them.

The character of Julian Assange has nothing really to do with this – except insofar as his prominence has only made Wikileaks, and the nascent opposition to this retaking control of the Internet, vulnerable because people in general can’t tell the difference between a person and an idea and will often think an idea is discredited if a person is – and individuals are very easy to discredit, not least because of the amount of information now available to intelligence services about people means that their vulnerabilities and proclivities can be easily exploited. A lot of people who are genuinely interested in openness and transparency were already questioning the need for this supposed ‘leader’ and I suspect that we will soon see (multiple) other alternatives to Wikileaks emerging.

I would suggest that people who think this is melodramatic are usually speaking either from a position of ignorance of the broad range of trends that are coalescing around the Wikileaks issue, or are simply baffled by the redefinition of politics that is occuring around information and are seeking certainty in the old institutions of nation-state and corporations – institutions that ironically were once themselves so threatening to what was seen as a natural order.

But why should we care? I have heard some people argue that the Wikileaks issue is someway down their list of political priorities. But it shouldn’t be. This issue underlies most other attempts to have any kind of progressive politics in an information age. We already have an economically globalized world. Political power is also increasingly globalized. Yet, what we have in terms of systems of accountability and transparency are tied to archaic systems of nation-states with their secrecy and corporations with their confidentiality. Yet for almost all the founders of the enlightenment, free information was crucial – whether it was for the operation of free markets or the success of politics. In other words, without transparency, there can never be a real global polity to hold the new global institutions to account. And then all your other political concerns will remain limited, local and without significant impact.

If you want a world where your political influence is limited to a level which no longer matters, then sure, don’t support Wikileaks.

But if you actually care about being able to have some degree of accountability and control at a level that does, then you absolutely should support Wikileaks against the measures being taken to destroy it. At least sign the Avvaaz petition. Sure, we don’t know what form any emergent global polity can or will take – and maybe one of the fascinating things about such an open, ‘Wiki-world’ is that no one person or group will be able to determine this – but we certainly know what the alternative looks like, and whilst it may not be ‘a boot stamping on human face forever’, it is most certainly a firm paternal hand on our shoulder.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

4 thoughts on “The Internet Must Be Defended (2): a Transparency (R)evolution?”

  1. David,

    A thoughtful post, with important implications.

    I would add, however, that we should not be surprised at such developments, and not just because of corporate and U.S. hegemony that propel a particularly authoritarian agenda on the internet and elsewhere. The internet, the Web and computing in general and in their current incarnations derive from a particular socio-historic place, intrinsically connected to their development as military and administration technologies. These technologies have values embedded within them, and these development of which you write here are not only an outgrowth of contemporary political happenings, but also of these embedded values. A democratic internet emerging forth from technologies of administration would entail a severing of the technology itself from its historic and social situation, which would involve processes that I could only imagine in an ideal sense and would be problematic in the least in the existing political and social environment. (We might imagine, similarly, a democratic prison or a democratic atomic bomb for that matter.) My discussion here does not even consider the other technologies and resources that the internet depends upon for functioning, such as steel, gold, harnessed electricity from nonrenewable sources, bureaucratic management of programming and its distribution, and so forth, all of which have developed their social organization through destruction and domination, and which carry such values forward in their daily integration in society.

    This is not to deflate your criticism, here. These are certainly important matters, and the prioritization of developing democratic communications, exposing and confronting untenable forms of totalitarian surveillance, and supporting those who usher mechanisms for transparency in governance are essential political positions for those invested in community and democracy. I am merely suggesting that your exposure of and concern for such issues shines light on the sheer depth of the problem in social history, and the need to question not only the social integration and governance of such technologies, but to also consider the technologies themselves.

    Keep up the good work!


    Ben Brucato

  2. All true, Ben, thanks – but I don’t think that technologies, any more than people, are always condemned by their origins. In some ways, it is the very fact that the Internet has grown beyond and out of the control of ARPA, the US military, and indeed the USA in general, that has prompted at least the contemporary US reaction to its current trajectory. You might almost say that they want it back!

  3. Where does the difference between responsibility and accountability arise and what is that difference? That is a question which continues to arise in my mind in this process, and it is one which seems particularly pertinent to this time.

    It seems to me that understanding those differences appears to be a key ingredient in finding a resilient answer to the demands of the information society. (In which I myself see the growing surveillance culture as a symptom of rather than a completely separate issue.)

    Having recently likened (by extending the progression of some argument threads) of WikiLeaks to the historical difficulties experienced during the religious persecutions of science, it does seem many of the more obviously human qualities which require consideration from all perspectives do get misinterpreted, overlooked or merely misrepresented in favour of fitting in with particular sets of knowledge.

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