Hopefully this is just a temporary phase of me being gloomy, since I’m a great believer in optimism of the will, and generally think that pessimism and cynicism just reinforce the status quo. “The man” wants us to be pessimistic and cynical, since then it’s harder to get people to expect (and demand) change. (This makes me wistful for Obama when he called himself a “hope-mongerer”–anyone remember that?)
When I wrote Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency at the beginning of 2012, I was trying to situate Julian Assange/Bradley Manning in the context of a much larger movement for greater political transparency. I still think that connection technologies are disruptive to traditional power structures and, in the long run, we will get to a new equilibrium where ordinary people have more power and voice and “we” can effectively watch and influence our government, politicians and corporations as much as they can watch and influence us. So, I still believe as I wrote in the book:
Transparency is the fuel; connectivity is the engine; a sense of oneself as a more effective participant in the democratic process (personal democracy, if you will) is the journey. What is emerging was a greatly expanded notion of the role of citizen not just as a passive consumer of political information and occasional voter, but as an active player, monitoring what government and politicians were doing, demanding a seat at the table and a view of the proceedings, sharing self-generated news of what was important, and participating in problem solving.
But it’s impossible to deny that what we’ve seen and learned over the last 18 months is pretty challenging to that goal and hope.
First, on Manning. I’m glad he was acquitted of “aiding the enemy” (a ridiculous and dangerous charge), but his treatment and trial should still leave us very concerned about the state of freedom in America today. When Daniel Ellsberg turned himself in after leaking the Pentagon Papers (which were all “Top Secret”–a level of classification that Manning did not breach), he was charged with various crimes and then allowed to go free on bail, free to speak to the country, until his trial. Manning was put in very harsh solitary conditions. Coverage of his trail has been constrained by a court that wouldn’t make transcripts available, and his defense was prevented from offering evidence showing that he did not harm the country (it’s a debatable point but my point here is he couldn’t even try to make that case). One would think there might be more of an outcry on his behalf (and there has been some), but there seems to be no one in our bipartisan political establishment willing to break with the notion that he is a hacker and a traitor. Even the Democrats who were vociferously anti-Iraq War, and question the war in Afghanistan and our diplomatic coziness with dictators around the world, had nothing to say in defense of Manning’s leaks.
It’s as if, as Tom Englehardt wrote, the government is operating under a new theory of nuclear deterrence, which is that the way to prevent a freer flow of information (i.e., fewer secrets! at a time when we’re classifying something like 90 million documents a year! and four million people have clearances!) is to go nuclear against any and all whistleblowers that may arise, to deter others. See his “How to be a rogue superpower: A manual for the 21st century” for the whole argument.
And that gets me to Snowden. Here I am a bit more hopeful about some reforms happening. The NSA’s overreach (emboldened by the whole post-9-11 climate and a FISA court stacked with conservatives by Chief Justice Roberts) is generating a strong response from civil libertarian minded folks on both sides of the aisle–the recent close House vote on the Amash/Conyers amendment to somewhat restrict the NSA’s activities being a sign of how quickly the shift is taking place.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Right now, our emails, social media activities, web browsing, phone records, phone location records, and possibly also content of our phone calls (I’ve lost track) are all collected and stored by the NSA for possible later retrieval and dissection. Not just foreigners, folks! (The Post Office makes a copy of the outside of every letter you’ve sent, too, for good measure.) When someone comes under suspicion and they get the FISA court’s okay we’re told they go up to three hops (connections of connections of connections) in how widely they spread the web of whose data they will then peruse. And if you’ve ever corresponded with a foreigner, the odds that your communications have been examined go up. I’ve exchanged emails with Julian Assange, which means if you’ve ever exchanged emails with me, welcome to the charmed circle of people who now have to wonder if they should say everything they want to say via email. That is a chilling effect on free speech, and we shouldn’t shrug it off.
Congress may finally push back on some of these excesses, but there’s still reasons for concern. First of all, anyone who has paid attention to the rise of authoritarianism anywhere in the world understands that this level of power of state surveillance is extremely dangerous. Even if NOW it is governed by “the good guys,” it still shouldn’t exist. It’s too much concentrated power, and it is and will be abused against the powerless. I say “it is” because if you are a Muslim in America, you know this already. Just emailing friends, posting videos, surfing the web, and making one trip to and from Yemen, got Tarek Mehenna 17 years in a “supermax” prison, based solely on the prosecution’s fevered argument that he was somehow aiding terrorists. (See this post by Kade Ellis, a terrific blogger/activist with the ACLU, for details.)
And finally, we need to worry about our own tendency to value convenience over privacy. The dystopia we’re living in, where so much of this information is easily obtained, is built largely on extremely weak privacy practices that we all casually submit to as we surf the web, post to Facebook, etc. Strong encryption tools exist, but they’re also a pain to use and most don’t really do what you want if most of your friends aren’t using them. See this terrific article for more details: “Thank you for choosing cypherpunk dystopia.”
If all of this motivates you to act, I’d say to start by joining the “StopWatching.us” campaign that EFF and others are leading.
And if you feel like buying my Wikileaks book, please do so by going direct to my publisher, ORBooks, which is a great little independent press, and unlike Amazon, they won’t kick you off their servers if you’re a bad boy.