Laurie Penny: Facebook and Google know that we value conformity more than privacy

Julian Assange's new book "Cypherpunks" has failed to understand something fundamental about the internet.

Sometimes a paranoid, to paraphrase William Burroughs, is just a person in possession of all the facts. There is no one on earth for whom this description is more accurate than the WikiLeaks founder, dubious hacker messiah and noted cop-dodger Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy evading extradition on rape allegations in Sweden. Assange knows more than almost anyone about the surveillance and security issues that affect every internet user; that he writes like a jaw-gnawing conspiracy theorist with crippling delusional narcissism doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Assange’s new book, Cypherpunks, is an edited transcription of conversations he had with some of his most devoted followers, all of them hackers, while under curfew in a house in England. It’s an urgent exploration of the ways in which world governments track the movements and store the data of any and all of us who use Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social networking sites. It is almost impossible to discuss the bare facts of this very real crisis without sounding a little bonkers – the government can read your emails! Big corporations are looking through your drunk party pictures! – and bombastic manifestos such as Cypherpunks only make it seem less credible.

Heroes and villains

Assange predicts, with all the subtle persuasive rhetoric of a placard-banging street-corner doomsayer, that the “universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control”. He adds: “This book is a watchman’s shout in the night.” It’s a shout that desperately needs to be heard. What worries me is that the warning cry is being raised so poorly and with such little understanding of what makes people change their behaviour that the rest of us might dismiss it as background noise.

This is not an article about Assange’s sex life and alleged sex crimes. I’ve already written several of those, as have many others, and the most salient point there is that those who believe in freedom should not be forced to choose between censorship and misogyny. It should be possible for us to defend whistleblowers’ rights to freedom from prosecution and women’s rights to freedom from abuse at the same time.

The truth is that sexual assault is so horrifically commonplace that it should be possible to imagine that a man might be an important thinker, a heroic freedom fighter and also a rapist. Recent history is a litany of brave and distinguished writers, from Tom Paine to Leo Tolstoy to T S Eliot, who were physical or psychological abusers of women. That does not disqualify them from making contributions to human progress but it does cast those contributions in a harsher light than they perhaps intended.

Cypherpunks is a book about four brave, smart, innovative men, one of whom is wanted for questioning on rape allegations, sitting in a room telling each other how brave and smart they are and expecting everyone else to agree with them. That is not and never has been a way to make a revolution happen. Hacker orthodoxy holds that the facts alone should be sufficient to stop people signing over their social universe to shady corporations, but if you want to change the world it isn’t enough just to be right.

If you want to change the world, you need to sketch out the possibility of a life without the shackles that you see and others can’t, invite everyone else to join you there and make it convenient for them to do so, even if you don’t like them, even if they aren’t as clever as you are.

At present, the only solution from Assange and his cypherpunks seems to be for everyone to become competent at digital encryption, which is not going to happen any time soon. We know this because, even though there’s free software out there that allows anyone with moderate computer skills to make their data secure, the head of the CIA, for God’s sake, still uses Gmail to drop messages to his mistress.

Assange and his acolytes have failed to understand something fundamental about the internet because they have failed to understand something fundamental about people. The internet isn’t just a matrix of a squillion numbers meshed in fibre optics; it’s a network of billions of human beings, most of whom spend a lot of time terribly frightened of being lonely and left out and who are prepared to do a lot of things they aren’t proud of to allay those fears. That’s the terrifying power of the social network.

Willing victims

People don’t need to be told that Facebook is a juddering behemoth that probably knows where you live, your food and music preferences and the weight and idiosyncracies of your genitals – and has the right to sell that information to any third party it deems worthy. People don’t need to be told that every single dirty or idiotic thing they searched for on Google three years ago is recorded on a giant corporate server somewhere in the American Midwest. We already know or suspect all of those things and more and we may not be happy to be a part of it, but the vast majority of us have chosen to join the crowd rather than be cut off from social influence, because that’s what people do.

This is how totalitarianism works. It’s not just the threat of violence, in the cypherpunks’ words – it’s also the threat of exclusion.

You aren’t stupid. You knew what you were doing when you ticked the little box signing over your personal information, your intimate photographs and the history of your private heartbreak that you can now read in a cold text-and-picture box that isn’t yours, displayed next to adverts optimised to suit whatever products an algorithm thinks you might buy.

Nobody was holding a knife to your throat. You gave those parts of yourself freely, because you were afraid that if you didn’t you would be left behind, and unless someone comes along and puts a gentle, understanding hand on your wrist you may very well continue to give and give until there’s no part of your private self that can’t be sold.

If the “global totalitarian surveillance society” that Assange envisages comes about, that impulse will be what brings it into being: not just fear of violence, but a creeping conformism that is as violent as any gunshot in the night.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

The fact that Julian Assange writes like a jaw-gnawing conspiracy theorist with crippling delusional narcissism doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.