The Rise of the Internet Dissidents
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s volcanic revelations of ubiquitous US surveillance are in their third month. The aftershocks felt around the world continue. As Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum, the White House fell into anger and dismay.
Computer scientist Nadia Heninger argued that leaking information is now becoming the “civil disobedience of our age”. The late historian and activist Howard Zinn described the act of civil disobedience as “the deliberate, discriminate, violation of law for a vital social purpose”. He advocated it saying that such an act “becomes not only justifiable but necessary when a fundamental human right is at stake and when legal channels are inadequate for securing that right”.
Snowden’s act was clearly one of civil disobedience. John Lewis, US Representative and veteran civil rights leader recently noted that Snowden was “continuing the tradition of civil disobedience by revealing details of classified US surveillance programs”.
Snowden is not alone. In recent years, there have been waves of dissent that revealed the depth of corruption and abuse of power endemic in this global corporate system. Before Snowden, there was Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond who shook up the trend of criminal overreach within the US government and its transnational corporate and government allies. Private Bradley Manning blew the whistle on US war crimes and activist Jeremy Hammond exposed the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state. They took risks to alert the world about the systemic failure of representative government and the trend toward a dangerous corporate authoritarianism.
“Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us. They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed. They are the generation that grew up on the Internet and were shaped by it….”
Snowden, Manning and Assange are all part of an Internet generation that holds that transparency of governments and corporations is a form of check and balance on power. They believe in the power of information and in the public’s right to know. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, Snowden described how his motive was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” He advocated for participation of ordinary people in decision-making processes as a vital part of democratic society indicating that the policies of national security agencies that he exposed should be up to the public to decide. This belief is shared by his forerunners.
Manning, who inspired Snowden, wrote in his infamous chat log with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo: “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” He confirmed this conviction once again when he testified at the providence inquiry for his formal plea. After admitting that he was the source of the largest leak of classified information in history, he spoke again about the motivation behind his actions:
“I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
In pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy for hacking into the computers of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, computer whiz Jeremy Hammond stated that he believed, “People have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors”.
Barrett Brown, journalist and director of a website called Project PM, which crowd-sourced information exposing the activities of the cyber-intelligence industry, also held a similar conviction. Brown now sits behind bars with a possible maximum sentence of 105 years for his daring investigation of the growing private intelligence contractor industry. In an interview with NBC’s Michael Isikoff, Brown described“information freedom” as “the value of this age”. He spoke of how this belief motivates many cyber-activists to engage in civil disobedience against those in positions of power who act unethically.
The motto of these activists is: privacy for the public, transparency for government officials and corporate executives. It was this care for privacy and protection of personal information that motivated Snowden to risk his freedom and also caused Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer to expose a security flaw inside AT&T servers. “Auernheimer’s crime was not a hack” Natasha Lenard of the Salon clarified his position. She explainedhow “he did not illegally access a private server. Rather, his conviction hinged on what data gets to be authorized or unauthorized and who gets to decide this”. Though his actions didn’t harm anyone, Auernheimer was sent to prison for pointing out the company failure to protect user’s data.
It is this common theme of information freedom that motivates this new generation of activists. Their fight against a corrupt system required great personal sacrifice; they have been incarcerated, stripped naked, put on show trials, stuck in an airport transit space and immobilized in an Ecuadorian embassy.
A Vision of a New World
These digital dissenters speak truth to power. By way of the new digital medium, they revealed the deep fraud of an arrogant system that enables governments and corporations to look into the private lives of others while concealing their own immoral actions from the public. But, this was not all; these young activists also saw a vision of a new world and of a more open and just society.
With the release of the classified NSA files, Snowden stated that he was acting in defense of what he cherishes:
“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build and it’s not something I’m willing to live under.”
In the chat log, Manning pointed to the idea of open diplomacy, elaborated in a New York Times article as “the opposite of secret diplomacy, which consists in the underhand negotiation of treaties whose very existence is kept from the world”. Discretely referring to the release of Cablegate, he described the material as the “non-PR-versions of world events and crisis” and called it “open diplomacy”. Later he noted that “information should be free” as it “belongs in the public domain” and shared his view stating “if information is out in the open”, no one can take advantage of it and “it should do a public good”. Here he showed his longing for an honest society where there is some form of transparency for what leaders are doing in the dark.
This vision of the world is tied to certain values that are encouraged by the open structures of the internet. Unlike the age of the printing press when information tended to be centralized, the era of the internet fosters an interactive and direct peer-to-peer form of communication. Anthropologist Paul Jorion noted that the inherently democratic nature of the internet means “there’s no hierarchy and everyone can express themselves”.
The life of late activist Aaron Swartz exemplified these new values born in tandem within this digital communication medium. Swartz stood up for the people’s right to free information. The 2008 manifesto he co-authored stated that sharing information was a “moral imperative” against “privatization of knowledge”. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive”; Swartz urged us to “fight for Guerrilla Open Access.” It is his belief in the freedom to connect that led Swartz into a battle to defeat the Hollywood-based Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that was camouflaged as a solution to copyright infringement, but that actually threatened the ability to communicate and share freely over the Internet.
“What is needed is not reform but total transformation -not amendments but abolition. Aaron is a hero to me because he did not wait for those in power to realize his vision and change their game, he sought to change the game himself, and he did so without fear of being labeled a criminal and imprisoned by a backwards system of justice”.
Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Julian Assange saw the increasing force that was subverting the internet and alerted people to the spying networks created by transnational corporate allies. In the book Cypherpunks: Freedom and Future of the Internet, co-written with Andy Müller-Maguhn, Jérémie Zimmermann and Jacob Appelbaum, Assange showed how the internet can be used as an instrument for both freedom or oppression.
“Once upon a time in a place that was neither here nor there, we, the constructors and citizens of the young internet discussed the future of our new world,” Assange wrote in the introduction. Pioneers of this net culture seemed to have recognized a democratizing force inherent in the technology of the internet and how its power, when truly freed, could transform the existing structures of control and ownership. The founder of WikiLeaks articulated the vision of Cypherpunks, a group of activists who woke up to the potential of cryptography in bringing societal and political change:
“We say that the relationships between all people would be mediated by our new world, and that the nature of states, which are defined by how people exchange information, economic value, and force, would also change. We saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states. … The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence …”
Assange saw how the internet is moving in a manner contrary to his vision and how it “has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen” and indeed has become “a threat to human civilization”. He elaborated in a Guardian article how the control of oil resources has been a major denominator for granting certain countries geopolitical power and “the war for oil pipelines” has been driving the world. He explained how now this battle has shifted over into “the war for information pipelines: control over fibre-optic cable paths that spread undersea and overland”.
Now, the situation is accelerating. In the last couple of years we have seen a tremendous assault on internet freedom. The force to squash the vision of this generation has infiltrated cyberspace. The battle has begun.
The Frontier of Digital Liberation
The trend toward centralized control or restriction of information flow has become an antithesis to the way of life experienced by this generation of digital activists. Richard Stallman who inspired figures like Assange also warned about the surveillance scheme. Stallman, a founder of the Free Software Movement, promotes freedom respecting software, which gives users control over their technology. He pointed to an unfolding battle between corporations and a growing body of people who believe software and communication venues should be free of insidious covert control. He described how this control is exercised by a form of propriety where, for example corporations and governments subjugate users with insidious features such as converting cell phones into spying and tracking devices and creating software backdoors to make changes to programs or install intentionally malicious software without user’s consent.
In the name of copyright and intellectual property, the act of sharing has in many cases become a crime, yet some have found creative ways to circumvent the systemic clampdown. One of those on the frontier of digital liberation is Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, alias anakata, a Swedish computer specialist who co-founded the BitTorrent site The Pirate Bay, which facilitates peer-to-peer file sharing. Similar pioneering work was done by Kim Dotcom, a German-Finnish Internet entrepreneur who launched the Hong Kong- based company Megaupload, which enables massive file storage and viewing. Such actions were legally attacked by the corporate-government information cartels. Svartholm Warg was charged with illegal downloading of copyrighted material and sent to jail, while the US government overextended its arrogant imperial power byattempting to shut down Megaupload and extradite founder Dotcom.
While the founder of Pirate Bay sits behind bars, Torrent Site continues to combat the censorship. It is releasing a customized Firefox called PirateBrouser that enables users to go around the censorship. After the stories of NSA mass spying became public, Dotcom announced the upcoming release of an encrypted secure message apps and email service. He stated that he might move this privacy service overseas to Iceland, which is known as a strong advocate for protesting citizen’s privacy.
Now, more people are joining together to defend the values of the Internet generation. In the last few years, the online collective Anonymous has become the ubiquitous face of cyber-activism. With V for Vendetta “Guy Fawkes” masks, this loosely tied decentralized network acts whenever and wherever their radar catches classic abuses of power. They fiercely mobilize to take on the powerful, whether it is arrogant government contractors like Aaron Barr, religious organizations like Scientology, child sexual abusers or immoral governments and corporations. “Beneath this mask there is an idea …” They are united with shared sense of justice and conviction that “ideas are bulletproof”. Repeatedly, Anonymous has shown to be a champion of the downtrodden and those that challenge illegitimate power.
Ideals of the Heart
The common struggles in what these young people are fighting against bind them together, but the true mark of this generation is a shared vision of a world with virtues like sharing, love and creativity that have been suppressed in the trend toward extreme capitalism within the transnational corporate-state.
Along with a new found courage, these young people reveal a strong sense of compassion and trust in ordinary people. In the online chat logs, Manning showed his extraordinary empathy for others when he wrote,“I can’t separate myself from others … I feel connected to everybody… like they were distant family.”
At OHM 2013, a five day outdoor international festival for hackers and cyber security workers, retired CIA officer Ray McGovern remarked how both Snowden and Manning acted with empathy when they witnessed human suffering. They trusted the general public over governments and found hope in the actions of ordinary people to change the course of society for the better. Manning said:
“ … its important that it gets out … I feel, for some bizarre reason … it might actually change something … hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms … if not… than we’re doomed as a species.”
The same sentiment was shared by Snowden when he said, “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change”. It is those human attributes that the empire is trying to punish.
On July 30th, the military judge delivered a verdict in the case of Bradley Manning. Manning was not found guilty for the most ridiculous charge of “aiding the enemy” for leaking state secrets and evidence of war crimes that were published by major news outlets and posted on the internet. Yet, he was found guilty of multiple counts including six Espionage Act offenses. He faces punishment of up to 136 years in prison, which during the sentencing phase, was reduced to maximum of 90 years.
In responding to the verdict, journalist Norman Solomon wrote about how the problem the U.S. government had with Manning was that he acted out of “caring, with empathy propelling solidarity”.
Darker Net called for a miracle in the freeing of Bradley Manning, ringing a similar note:
“The US Government wants to lock him away forever. Why? Because he had compassion. Because he had a profound sense of justice. Because he understood the difference between right and wrong. Because he saw aspects of war that horrified him. Some might say he had an innocence; was naive. But perhaps if we all had that same innocence, the world might be a better place.”
In this sense of naïveté there lies a strength that makes it possible for us to act toward a vision of a world that we imagine. “It takes a little bit of naivety in order to jump in and do something that otherwise looks impossible. Many great advances in science, technology and culture have a touch of naivety at their inception”, WikiLeaks wrote in their about page describing how the organization was first formed.
What at first appears as naïveté is what plants seeds for higher ideals. Sharon Staples, who helped care for Bradley Manning when he was a child, recalled her interaction with him when she visited him in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: “I asked him if he wanted me to send him anything and he said, ‘Everything I want is in here and here.’ …. As he said the word ‘here’, he pointed to his head, then his heart.”
Ideals grow in the minds and hearts of many in this generation and help cultivate a moral sensibility that allows each person to make unique contributions to the world. Janet Reitman, who wrote a defining piece on Hammond, ended the article by highlighting Hammond’s idealism, “He was an idealist who even after being jailed kept fighting at every occasion and he never betrayed himself”.
For those in power, the idealism of this generation and their conscience is an existential threat to their order. The ‘crime’ of aiding the enemy here is really the act of aiding democracy and acting for the public good. In the end, it has shown that we the public have become the enemy of the state.
Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner said of the younger generation:
“The question is not: what knowledge or skills does a person need to have in order to benefit the existing social order. But: what pre-disposition does this person have, and what is capable of development? Then it would be possible to channel new energies from the rising generation into the social order. Then the rising generation will not be fitted into the mould of the existing society, rather society will be what these newly recruited adults make of it.”
What is really happening with the growing trend of crackdowns on dissents and truth-tellers? Our society has failed to listen. Those in power are actively shutting out the voices of those with conscience. Obama’sunprecedented war on whistleblowers and equating these heroic deeds with treason are simply a symptom of this deafening of society. How did we get to this place? How has our society become so degraded?
We Are Winning
This totalitarian surveillance state wasn’t built in a day. There was a warning. Back in 1975 the late Senator Frank Church at the famous Church Committee hearings challenged the burgeoning potential of total surveillance in the US:
“[The National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide”.
38 years later, this young courageous whistleblower stepped forward to once again alert the people of the world to the severity of Big Brother moving into a digital dystopia, which he assessed as “turnkey tyranny”. All the US government would need to do would be to give the order and this once-great nation would spiral into overt despotism.
The battle continues in earnest between two forces; freedom and control, transparency and secrecy, sharing and proprietary ownership. It is in this fight that the Internet generation has found itself.
Speaking from the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange said, “We are winning … We are a part of a new international body politic that is developing, thanks to the internet”. He predicted to see the inevitable defeat of the national security state, saying that young people of ages between 20 and 30 are the ones who are recruited into the NSA and the CIA and those who are exposed to the Internet are shaped by certain values. He saidthat they will find “the agencies that they work for do not behave in a legal, ethical or moral manner.” This is already happening and this new form of information dissent is spreading.
For instance, at the Black Hat conference, a gathering of computer experts and cybersecurity professionals in Las Vegas, NSA head Keith Alexander was repeatedly interrupted by the audience. As Alexander stated NSA’s mission for freedom, a critical voice emerged to oppose the NSA surveillance.
Despite Obama’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, the climate of fear doesn’t seem to hinder the will of those who act with conscience. Edward Snowden spoke of how he learned from others who came before him and that the power of ones conscience is something that cannot be imprisoned or stopped:
“Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.”
The recent Snowden asylum victory is just the beginning. Debates over reform are happening. Now privacy has a chance to at least have a front seat debate. Snowden’s revelations led to a major House vote on an amendment that would defund one single NSA program to end their blanket collection of US phone records. Even though the bill was defeated, it was lost by only 12 votes. It brought huge shifts in public opinionabout the security state and government secrecy. A grassroots organization called “Restore the Fourth” quickly formed, which had its first round of protest on July 4th to challenge the unconstitutionality of NSA mass surveillance after it was revealed by Snowden. The group recently launched mass protests, calling for “1984 Day”, named for George Orwell’s classic novel about a Big Brother surveillance state. This movement is gathering momentum. Across the US in major cities, people marched calling to end the government spying.
The founder of a US-based encrypted email service, reportedly used by Edward Snowden, Ladar Levison announced he was shutting down the operation. The decision was made after being given a difficult choicebetween becoming “complicit in crimes against the American people” or walking “away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” He chose the latter instead of submitting to US government’s secret order to give them access to customer content.
While government surveillance brings pressure on internet companies to collude with them, more and more people are coming together to resist this insidious force. Three of Germany’s largest email providersannounced their plans to partner up to strengthen the security of messages sent between them. Mailpile, an Iceland-based free/open source email service is crowd-funding a secure private email client/cloud service that is an alternative to US-tied services such as gmail. After the revelation of the Xkeyscore spying program that is shown to specifically target Wikipedia users, the WikiMedia foundation stepped forward to take extra measures to protect users privacy.
Nothing can stop this generation infused with a new sense of justice and shared vision for humanity. Similar to online connections, where when one link is broken, another emerges; when one person is taken out, several more emerge because courage is contagious. This desperate empire might stop one individual, but it cannot lock them all up.
Call them whistleblowers, dissidents, hackers or geeks, the youth of today’s Internet generation is uncovering for the world the level of deceit and corrupted state power. Our connections, our genuine care for one another is a power in the ether and creates a network that can lead us into a future that is imagined in our collective heart. Whether or not this generation can help move the world beyond the inhumane system of illegitimate governance is up to us, as we too are a part of this rising Internet generation.
Nozomi Hayase is a contributing writer to Culture Unplugged. She brings out deeper dimensions of socio-cultural events at the intersection between politics and psychology to share insight on future social evolution. Her Twitter is @nozomimagine.