Internet doit être défendu! (4)

I write this addition to my ongoing series of thoughts on the implications of the Wikileaks scandal, en Francais because according to Le Point, the the Assemblée Nationale has passed a bill, Loppsi 2, which, amongst other things, in its Article 4, allows the French government to ban particular websites, and essentially to ‘filter’ the Internet. The Bill of course has ‘good intentions’, in this case, it is aimed at paedophiles, but the wording is such that it allows a far wider use against “la cybercriminalité en général”. Regardless, as the article points out: “Les expériences de listes noires à l’étranger ont toutes été des fiascos,” in other words such bills have generally been a complete failure as in most cases the state’s technology and expertise cannot deliver what the law allows.

However, I am left wondering what makes this any different from what China does, and what moral right the French state now has to criticise Chinese censorship or indeed any other regime that is repressive of information rights. And of course, what other very reasonable ‘good intentions’ could be drawn upon for closing the Net – opposing ‘information terrorism’, par example?

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.

The Internet Must Be Defended!

As I am just putting the finishing touches on a new issue of Surveillance & Society, on surveillance and empowerment, the furore over the Wikileaks website and it’s publication of secret cables from US diplomatic sources has been growing. Over the last few days, Julian Assange, the public face of the website and one of its founders has been arrested in London on supposedly unrelated charges as US right-wing critics call for his head, the site’s domain name has been withdrawn, Amazon has kicked the organization off its US cloud computing service, one of Assange’s bank accounts has been seized, and major companies involved in money transfer, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard, have all stopped serving Wikileaks claiming that Wikileaks had breached their terms of service.

At the same time, hundreds of mirror sites for Wikileaks have been set up around the world, and the leaks show no sign of slowing down. The revelations themselves are frequently mundane or confirm what informed analysts knew already, but it is not the content of these particular leaks that is important, it is the point at which they come in the struggle over information rights and the long-term future of the Internet.

The journal which I manage is presaged on open-access to knowledge. I support institutional transparency and accountability at the same time as I defend personal privacy. It is vital not to get the two mixed up. In the case of Wikileaks, the revelation of secret information is not a breach of anyone’s personal privacy, rather it is a massively important development in our ability to hold states to account in the information age. It is about equalization, democratization and the potential creation of a global polity to hold the already globalized economy and political elites accountable.

John Naughton, writing on The Guardian website, argues that western states who claim openness is part of freedom and democracy cannot have it both ways. We should, he says, ‘live with the Wikileakable world’. It is this view we accept, not the ambivalence of people like digital critic, Clay Shirky, who, despite being a long-term advocate of openness seemingly so long as the openness of the Internet remained safely confined to areas like economic innovation, cannot bring himself to defend this openness when its genuinely political potential is beginning to be realised.

The alternative to openness is closure, as Naughton argues. The Internet, created by the US military but long freed from their control, is now under thread of being recaptured, renationalized, sterilized and controlled. With multiple attacks on the net from everything from capitalist states’ redefinition of intellectual property and copyrights, through increasingly comprehensive surveillance of Internet traffic by almost all states, to totalitarian states’ censorship of sites, and now the two becoming increasingly indistinguishable over the case of Wikileaks, now is the time for all who support an open and liberatory Internet to stand up.

Over 30 years ago, between 1975 and 1976 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault gave a powerful series of lectures entitled Society Must Be Defended. With so much that is social vested in these electronic chains of connection and communication, we must now argue clearly and forcefully that, nation-states and what they want be damned, “The Internet Must Be Defended!”

“To destroy invisible government”

There was a really interesting piece posted this week on the blog, zunguzungu, which analyzes an early essay written by Wikileaks frontman, Julian Assange. The essay which is available on Cryptome (pdf) – itself a precursor of Wikileaks – is a very well-crafted and argued piece which reveals Assange as a radical idealist for a new transparent society, whose aim is ultimately to destroy the need for Wikileaks itself by making secretive government impossible. Very worth reading.