Three decades after the invention of the World Wide Web, the early fascination with the tech expert, the personification of the idealism of the internet, and the freedom to explore and create, is long gone. Today, the most powerful government in the World looks at creative people with technical proficiency, screams, and labels them “Cyberterrorists!” while liberals blame them for our failed democracies.
It is not just about the criminalization of those who dare to disrupt structures of technological power, but their demonization and social ostracism. This has surely had an impact. Self-censorship (so hard to measure) prevails. The opaqueness of the algorithm and the monetization of our tears and smiles is the norm today. Dissent is either filtered or buried within silly memes.
The few who profit from a global structure of surveillance and control now lead global capital, while those who could challenge their status quo are being held in solitary confinement, silenced, demonized.
Consolidating their dominance with mergers, the Tech Empires are inviting in the oil and weapons industry. Very little ground has been left for social innovation, save for dystopian experiments with the marginalized.
With each of our keystrokes, we are becoming more transparent and predictable. But we are not creating common value anymore, just private value for monopolists.
This reflection will take us a decade back in time, to the moment when a crucial battle was lost. Awareness about this lost battle should force us to face the next battle with courage and unity among the privileged online half of humanity.
The free culture utopians v. the Hackers
The global impacts of digital collective actions started gently and humbly – the democratization of knowledge was for most of us, the urgent priority for a better world. Wikipedia, Creative Commons, and Free Culture were mostly collaborative efforts. They involved interdisciplinary communities excited about the multiplier effects of digital technologies, but a little frustrated about the legal frames they had to exist in. Making the digital accessible just meant getting it closer to the masses at the expense of the lucrative business models of the content cartels. Internet Access for all. One Laptop Per Child. Naive yet messianic missions to collect all the knowledge of the World and make it available “for free.” The equalizers that would change everything, we dreamed. Emancipatory tools that would revolutionize access to information and education, making us brighter, better.
We will unlock all the human creativity to build a different World, more equal, diverse, inclusive. For everyone, as Tim Berners-Lee hoped for his Web. Creative. We started gently and superficially. We were naive and willing, acting collectively and slowly, too slow to achieve an impact. Too predictable. We paved the way with a philosophy of openness and sharing for everyone, which was later hijacked by Silicon Valley, becoming “data, profit and shares” only for them. And we were harmless, yet at the same time more harmful than we could possibly have imagined. We cultivated the ground where our dreams of democratic digitalization were later buried.
We were useful idiots feeding the Digital Despot. Our openness paved the way for those who would lock our ideals into private monopolies.
But there were also the hackers, and they were different. They arrived long before us, and they were the real explorers of the digital. We were nothing but the evangelists, selling “open” and “sharing” as religion. They understood that technology is about politics. They understood power better than us by following the underlying architectures. They went straight to the bone, to the core, to the code. They were able to pierce the shield of the powerful: secrecy.
An abrupt power redistribution was about to occur when an increasingly robust infrastructure was owned but not controlled by the elites, just mediating all their communications. Two incompatible desires made them choose insecurity over security. Those who decided on the digital architecture wanted privacy, but also, they wanted to keep the possibility of spying on their opponents open. This was the start of the collection of data on a massive scale. More and more had access not only to documents but to the secret net of diplomatic and military deals.
And they had uninvited guests in their house; it was not hard for hackers to be inside these systems. They found themselves at the core of the emerging digital power by virtue of their skills and by understanding the nature of an architecture that invited infiltration. Hackers altered, exposed and modified systems through their cracks. Intentions varied. More often than not, the exposures were either ego or economically oriented. But among them there were the special ones. The real pioneers, visionaries, socially engineering the machine to distribute power among people.
The extraordinary, courageous hackers and digital whistleblowers had dreams of exposing and dismantling old and new elites. It was in the first decade of this century, towards the end of it, when hackers and whistleblowers opened all the gates at once, defiant. Starting with drops, a torrent and then a river of information flooded the privileged and challenged the press. Those whose plans were interrupted, who had their shameful behavior exposed, were the elites. Intentions varied.
WikiLeaks happened. With WikiLeaks, Global Digital Disobedience showed its power to the World, and a new era of accountability was opening.
Then, the Arab Spring happened. Occupy Wall Street, and London Stock Exchange followed, together with the Indignados movement in Madrid, leading to the other phenomena that could change history, but didn't quite manage to. What mattered was no longer just about exposing the power inside the system but also about how the social and political overlapped and could lead to organized masses demanding their rights.
And that changed the game, the combination of the digital insider and the social net. For the first time in an extended period, we were not the ones in fear; we were not the ones facing uncertainly. They were the ones facing the consequences of their actions, of their orders, of their deals, and double dealings.
But Silicon Valley took that opportunity with our consent and active collaboration, leading to accelerated growth and the concentration of their data power. And here we are today at the mercy of mad leaders and data lords. The utopians were either swallowed by them or marginalized. The hackers had an even harder time, especially the political ones. Some died, like Aaron Swartz. Others were crushed with Lawfare or recruited by intelligence agencies.
A much-reduced group gave up to capital, enhancing a system of consumption, extraction, surveillance, and control.
Only a few resisted, but recent developments in the WikiLeaks case make their future uncertain, dangerous, desperate. And we fail to understand their role, how they are that emergency code to stop an undifferentiated future without dissent. A future of automated domination.
The most critical battle is about to start. The upcoming challenge: regaining terrain
This reaction we failed to tackle remains our biggest challenge for the future. We were not vocal enough. We were not brave enough to defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks from the unprecedented public-private partnership to silence dissent. And that’s very recent history. The multi-layered attack against WikiLeaks back in December 2010 looks now like the pilot of what followed the next years.
Julian Assange understood earlier than anyone else that censorship, at the technological level, is led by the West. He designed a system to defeat it, with imperfections. The most obvious point of failure was the solidarity deficit of media and the courage deficit of human rights organizations. Instead of fixing them, one decade after, we need to start building alternatives.
WikiLeaks keeps publishing in an exemplary exercise of resistance, probably one of the most remarkable efforts to defend the right to publish our generation has witnessed. But to be effective independent publishing not only has to circumvent different levels of censorship but also hack the algorithm. And such battle cannot be divorced from the threats Julian Assange and WikiLeaks face.
The recent threat issued by the Congress is not just against Julian; it is against the future fights we have ahead. It is against all of us who believe in peaceful dissent and reject secrecy as the norm. “It is the sense of Congress that Wikileaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States,” they said. Is this acceptable?
Julian Assange, the emblematic figure of a movement pushing for a more democratic future, is facing almost imminent extradition to the USA, to face political persecution, not a trial. To harm forever, with the long arm of the law, our right to know, in a moment when crucial decisions depend on systems very few have access to. With the prosecution of Julian, the automated future will be unaccountable.
Will they get away with it? They engineered a social penalty for those who react against this obvious case of Lawfare to silence a journalist. Russia, they scream! Democracy, they claim.
Why was so easy to demonize WikiLeaks the last three years when compared to the earlier parts of the decade, if the publishing model did not change. What changed? Something external. We control less and less of the content we receive, the content we are fed.
There is an invisible curation of content and someone picking on a daily basis what particular items will feed our brains, inform our decisions. The algorithms of social media networks and the increasingly intense engagement of citizens curate the distribution of news and content priorities. And we all know too well who controls the priorities. That is a new form of control different from censorship and more dangerous.
Why do we accept such restrictions? When did we grant so much power to an entrenched elite to conceal from us the reasons and results of their actions? Did we actually decide to do that?
We urgently need to reverse this trend and create a new, collective, digital language of resistance. As companies are exerting colonial rule and influence on our choices, we need to start reorganizing local online life. We are at the prelude of a dark era, but there is still space for action. We cannot wait any longer, scrolling a distant world inside our screens as the planet burns.
A decade later, digital disruption is held in solitary confinement. That is the real meaning of the violent arrest and brutal treatment of Julian Assange, of hackers and whistleblowers who dare to act in the public interest and translate into actions the “Power to the people” of our times.
Next February 2020, an extradition hearing will take place in the UK, deciding whether the destiny of a hacker, journalist, activist exposing corrupt elites is a supermax prison in the US. Sending a tremendous chilling effect on anyone willing to hold elites accountable. Sending a message that exposing the truth is wrong. Closing once and for all the possibilities of opening the black boxes of power, in a moment of crisis, when we need it the most.
The time is now. Be on the courageous side instead of the comfortable one. Before your screen swallows your freedom whole.
Renata Avila (Guatemalan) is an international human rights lawyer, specializing in the next wave of technological challenges to preserve and advance our rights, and better understand the politics of data and their implications on trade, democracy, and society. She is currently writing a book on digital colonialism and designing international policies and prototyping technology for a democratic future for Diem25 where she serves as an elected member to its Coordinating Collective. She also co-leads the call for a Progressive International. She is part of the legal and advocacy team defending WikiLeaks and Julian Assange for over a decade. She is a Board member for Creative Commons. She also serves as a Board Member of the Common Action Forum and a Global Trustee of the Think Tank Digital Future Society. She is an Advisory Board Member for Article 19 Mexico & Central America.
* Cover photo: public domain.