On the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog

So the (now rather old) joke goes. In fact, this joke is now often seen as an example of how people early on in the history of the Internet misunderstood it. People, the argument goes, are just people on the Net, pretty much the same way they are in real life. No technological determinism here, no siree.

However there is increasing evidence that this new ‘common knowledge’ is dead wrong, but it isn’t necessarily individual ‘dogs’ pretending to be humans online, it is whole organised packs (don’t worry, I won’t take this metaphor any further). Various sources have been reporting the development call by the US military for software development to create artificial posters on Internet forums, chatrooms, and news sites. The US state it seems has woken up to the possibilities of what is often called ‘astroturfing’, the creation of fake grassroots movements, with fake members.

George Monbiot, a leading British investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper knows about astroturfing more than most. He frequently writes about climate change denialists, and the comments under his stories are always filled with pseudonymous critics who seem to pop up every time the word ‘climate’ is mentioned and their responses often appear to be scripted and organised. He’s been digging deeper, and while his investigations are still ongoing, he has provided a useful summary of recent development here.

As well as the corporate interests (tobacco, oil, pharma etc.) it’s also worth pointing out that other states are far ahead of the US on this. China notoriously has its so-called ’50-Cent Party’, students and others who are recruited by the state and paid by the message to counter any anti-Chinese or pro-Tibetan, pro-Taiwan or pro-Uighur sentiment. Their early efforts were laughably obvious, but are becoming more and more subtle. Israel is open in its backing of such ‘online armies’, and advocates the use of a particular software tool, called Megaphone, which enables its users to respond quickly and widely to any reports or discussion seem as against the interests of the Israeli state.

Anonymity is also used by these organised groups as a form of individual intimidation through other ‘open’ channels, especially of those who lack the resources and sometimes the low cunning to be able to respond effectively. One is Freedom of Information legislation. In the area of climate change denial, we saw this with the systematic and organised petitioning of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, in which FoI requests were really a form of harassment. More recently, as I have just heard from Chris Parsons, two professors from Ottawa, Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, seen as ‘liberal’ and critical of the Canadian government, have similarly found themselves the subject of a huge upsurge in FoI requests, many of which seem to be deliberately requesting very intimate information. This would appear to be Freedom of Information as intimidation.

There are several responses one could have to this. One would be to withdraw from more public and open forms of interaction, to batten down the hatches, retreat into extreme forms of privacy. This would be a mistake: it really would, as some of the more alarmist reports have proposed, mean the death of Web2.0. The other would be to take the Anonymous route, to ferret out the spies and the fakes. This could be done with better forum and comment software, but would mean a lot of hacking effort and knowledge. How is a chatroom supposed to go up against the power of states and corporations? The real risk with this, as with more low-tech forms of ‘exposure’, is that we help create a culture of suspicion in which moles and spies are everywhere, and genuine political interaction is chilled. It may be coincidental, but it is not unrelated, that we are seeing a growing attention being called to this kind of thing just as we have seen the power of social media in the uprisings across the Arab world. In this area at least privacy is not the answer, a more radical political openness and transparency may well be required to facilitate the kind of social trust that can keep Web2.0 growing and changing in a positive direction.

The Internet Must Be Defended (3): Everything is Terrorism?

One of the most ominous developments in the current conflict over Wikileaks has been the move in some quarters to define the publication of leaked information as something more than just ‘irresponsible’ or ‘criminal’ (e.g. ‘theft’ or even ‘espionage’). I have a lot of difficulty with those kinds of labels anyway, but it was only a matter of time before we saw serious, official calls for such activities to be defined as ‘terrorism’.

The Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, Laszlo Kover, yesterday called for the action of leaking confidential and secret information to be redefined as ‘information terrorism’. He seemed to be referring here not just to Wikileaks but to all ‘online news reporting’, in other words, he is advocating treating those who report on such information as ‘terrorists’ too.

Terrorism, let us not forget, is the use of violence to influence politics, in other words to impose one’s political will through fear of death or injury. There is no way in the world that one can argue rationally that releasing information that allows people to see what happens inside the organisations making claims to rule over us, or act on our behalf, is that kind of violence, indeed it is highly irresponsible to try to associate the term with any processes of nonviolent communication.

The problem is that to many people this probably doesn’t seem unreasonable – people already talk about ‘information war’ as if that meant something clear and comprehensible. But this kind of action would be to extend the definition of terrorism, already stretched to breaking point by legislative changes in the USA, UK and other western countries, into the realm of freedom of speech and the politics of transparency and accountability.

Since 9/11, we have seen a gradual movement, at first indirect and associational as with John Robb’s talk of the ‘open-source insurgency’ back in 2005, and now increasingly overt, to define the advocates of openness and transparency as terrorists. This must be resisted before it takes root in any kind of legislation because ultimately this means that the Internet itself, the communications architecture which supports such activity, is portrayed as the vehicle for such ‘information terrorism.’ This will simply increase the movement of the drive to close the Net away from a crazy, fascistic notion (which it is) towards ‘common-sense.’ It will stifle the development of any genuine global polity.

What to do? Well the first thing is to respond immediately any time something like this is said by any politician or even commentator. This kind of talk should remain in the realm of the ridiculous and the repressive. We need to change the direction of the discourse.

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.

Support Peter Watts

I’ve been snowed under teaching recently and haven’t been posting much. One thing has really got my goat though and I think it needs wider attention. Those of you who read boingboing will already know, but the SF author, Peter Watts (who wrote the excellent novel of really alien contact, Blindsight) has been convicted of obstructing US border guards and could spend up to two years in prison. This is despite the fact that the border guards lied about the whole incident (they claimed he had tried to choke an officer, when in fact they were assaulting him, a fact admitted in court). He basically got convicted for challenged the guards and getting out of his car to ask what was going on. As Cory Doctorow comments on BoingBoing, this is not about security, this is not about safety, and it is not even about crime as we would recognise it, it is about authority and the massive increase in humourless abuse that has increased so much in recent years, particularly on the US border*. Peter Watts was convicted essentially of not responding fast enough and questioning commands. He’s now posted more on his own blog, including some comments from some of the jury, who couldn’t quite believe the outcome…

Anyone who thinks ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ or truly believes that it couldn’t happen to you, read this a be concerned. Show your support for Peter too. Write to your congressmen if you are in the USA, or Members of Parliament in Canada, write to Ministers and Secretaries of State. Make a fuss. Write to Peter too and tell him you support him.

*And sure, there’s a context, but it seems to me that the post-9/11 situation is used as an excuse by rather too many guards to exercise a petty brutality on anyone who does not conform to their perception of normality. That critical point where liberty comes up against security is just as much about interpersonal encounters like this as it is about grand policy.

Arrests for taking pictures continue in the UK

Despite repeated government and police assurances that it would not be happening any more, ordinary people are still being arrested for taking pictures in the UK, under the pernicious terms of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, and not just in London. This time, a photographer video camera user managed to film the process of his arrest. There particularly ridiculous aspects of this case are firstly that the officer, when challenged on his assertion that this was a terrorism-related offence, changed her charge to that of anti-social behaviour (which isn’t a crime as such, anyway), and secondly that the first officer was not even a proper police officer, but a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) AKA ‘plastic police’. PCSOs do not have the training or powers of the regular police but they are increasingly acting as if they do, and since they look almost identical to the untrained eye, they frequently get away with it. They shouldn’t: PCSOs need to be more clearly trained as to the legal and moral limitations of their role.

The second time he was stopped, it was by a police officer who had been informed by the PCSO, however the police officer too was unable to give reasons as to why they wanted the details of the photographer. They seemed to think that just because the officer was suspicious that was enough, whereas in law they must have a ‘reasonable’ suspicion. There were no such grounds. The officer refused to give reasonable grounds other than the fact they were taking pictures and refused to say whether they were being arrested. So they left, but they were later arrested by another officer for ‘anti-social behaviour’ (which is not a crime, and certainly taking pictures is not inherently ‘anti-social’ – or if it was, then the state’s CCTV systems would be equally ‘anti-social’). This seemed to have nothing more than a matter of the officers being annoyed by the fact that they challenged the officers. The police need to remember that they serve the public and are not there to tell the public what to do when they are doing nothing unlawful.