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.

Surveillance and the ‘Open-source Insurgency’

Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’. The answer for the military-industrial complex is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance.

The US military-industrial complex is always trying to identify new threats to bolster its budgets. There was a minor outcry a few years ago when US military powerpoint slides on strategy seemed to indicate that it regarded international civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, as a potential source of such threat. Then came 9/11 and the war on terror and for a while it didn’t need these phantom menaces as there were real global enemies, and fortunately for the military-industrial complex, it seemed that those enemies might be infinitely expandable and malleable into what was briefly termed the ‘long war’.

But the war on terror isn’t what it was. So there seems to be some effort to resurrect previous threats. One of these is ‘the war on drugs’ now rebranded as ‘narco-terrorism’ or ‘narco-insurgency’. And the particular focus of the concern is closer to the United States: Mexico. Writing in the self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool’, Forbes magazine, Reihan Salaam argued that Mexico’s ongoing struggle with drug-related violence was a major threat which could ‘blind-side’ the USA. Now, Republicans like Salaam are struggling to find anything important to say when its obvious what the major global problems are, and the US electorate has decided that the Republicans aren’t the people to solve them. He is of course correct that there is a serious situation in Mexico – and indeed elsewhere in Latin-America: the drug-trafficking gangs are also the major problem for the Brazilian government in any attempt to include their excluded favela communities. However, he makes no mention of the other underlying cause of destabilization in the USA’s southern neighbour – the way in which NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a subordinate economic role to the USA as source of cheap production facilities and cheap labour, all the while being told that its people are not wanted in the USA. The EU has its critics, but at least its building of free-trade has been accompanied by a far greater degree of free movement of people and reciprocal political rights. Nor is there any reference to the consumption of cocaine and crack in the USA that is driving the trade (as the first comment on the article notes).

Instead Salaam tries to analyze the Mexican situation using a recent strategic theory, and one which is profoundly worrying in its implications. In an essay in the New York Times in October 2005, John Robb argued that the Iraq war had turned into what he termed an ‘open-source’ insurgency, “a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups”. He argued that those resisting the US occupation and other armed groups were like open-source software developers in that “the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement”. (Never mind once again, that there is an obvious underlying common goal – that of getting rid of an occupying foreign power!).

Now of course, in many ways this was just a restatement of the whole post-Cold War, network-centric warfare hypothesis. There are also echoes back to the kind of language which has been used to describe ‘eastern’ or ‘foreign’ peoples for centuries – the British in India being unable to tell ‘them’ apart, the faceless and numberless ‘yellow peril’, the ‘godless communists’ who subordinated their individual will to the collective, and the ‘clash of civilizations’. It’s the hive-mind, the fear of humans who don’t appear to act ‘like us’. Without the overt racism of course: this is Orientalism 2.0, the politically-correct version!

However the addition of the label ‘open-source’ is no accident. Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals (profit, advancement, etc.), and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’.

So how to bring them ‘under control’? John Robb’s first (and rather refreshing) answer was that in many ways you probably can’t and that in Iraq, the US should have probably ‘let them win’. But this is an unpopular response for the uneconstructed military-industrial complex. For them the first answer is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance. For the Internet, we have seen, and continue to see, attempts in multiple countries to attack the basis of what makes the Internet creative and free, in the name of all kinds of ‘risks’ (mainly terrorism, identity crime, pirating and paedophilia). Of course these risks are no greater on the Internet than in the material world, but the Internet is still for many people, and many politicians in particular, a vast, unknown terrain which they do not understand: ‘here be dragons’ as the old maps used to have it of any such ‘terra incognita’.

For countries afflicted by the new ‘open-source insurgency’, the answer is the same. The Defense Industry Daily today starts off its story on Mexico with the apparently uncontentious statement that “Mexico needs surveillance.” It then lists with the usual kind of techno-pornographic relish of these publications, all the mainly Israeli UAVs and surveillance craft that the Mexican state is buying. We are supposed to cheer. We are supposed to think that this is evidence of Mexico’s growing maturity. Soon Mexico will be monitored and ‘under control’. No evidence of whether surveillance ‘works’ (even in military terms) troubles these kinds of stories. That is taken as self-evident. And certainly there is no question of whether this could in any way be the wrong approach, or even a counterproductive strategy. As the Brazilian parliamentarian to whom I was talking yesterday said, about the favelas, the only answer to both crime (because, let’s not forget that’s what ‘narco-terrorism’ really is) and the poverty on which it feeds, is in the long-term (and that means starting now not later): sanitation, schools, hospitals, transport, jobs – in other words providing the poor with access to the same society that the wealthier enjoy. Extending intensive high-tech military surveillance across the global south is not only a complete failure to address these underlying issues, it also diverts much-needed money away from social priorities. It is the wrong answer to the wrong question… except for the defense industry.