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?

Photo: Getty
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What to look out for in the 2017 local elections on 4 May

Your guide to the important results, through the night and into Friday evening. 

Voters in England, Scotland and Wales will elect councillors and county councillors on 4 May, in the first major indicator of party strength since the referendum contest. The snap election on 8 June gives the contest an added edge. Here's what to look out for as the night unfolds. 

22:00:  Polls close, and the New Statesman liveblog opens. Parties will start their spin operations, which will give us an idea how well or badly they think they’ve done.

Remember the historic trajectory is for the opposition parties to do better at local elections than general elections, as voters use them to send a message to the boss. That even holds true for the elections in 1983 and 1987, which occurred in May before a June election, where the Conservatives made gains, unusually for a governing party when locals are not held on the same day as general election. So both the Liberal Democrats and Labour will want to post big results in anticipation of doing worse on 8 June than they will on 4 May.

We will also be electing the new combined authority mayors. These use the instant run-off system, which means that if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off. This is one reason why the Conservatives will struggle to win any of these elections other than Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

There will, I imagine, be some on-the-whistle polls, though these should not be considered “exit polls” in the sense of the big one on general election nights.

Well, British exit polls aren’t measuring voting intention – they don’t give us much of a sense of what the percentage of the vote will be, for instance – but change. Although there are many more Labour voters in Hackney than there are in Harrogate, for instance, for the most part, if there is a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Hackney, there will be a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Harrogate – and, more importantly, in Harlow, a marginal seat.

This is very expensive however, so broadcasters will not be shelling out for an exit poll for the local elections. Instead, we’ll just get ordinary polls.

Hopefully they’ll be interesting, because we won’t have much to talk about until…

02:00: Results come in from the Isle of Wight, which, thanks to its large number of independents, won’t tell us all that much unless the Liberal Democrats are on course for a fantastic night. More interesting is Swansea, the first Welsh council due to declare.  Labour hold 49 of the seats here, but the Liberal Democrats went from 23 seats here to just 12 last time, so they will hope to make gains.

These results won’t disprove anything – Labour could hold on in Swansea and the Isle of Wight could continue to be a bit odd and the Liberal Democrat revival could be on, but it’s also possible that we will see that they are really starting to get back to their pre-coalition position.

Also keep a look out for how the Conservatives do in the wards that make up Gower, a Labour seat from 1906 until the 2015 election, where Byron Davies is defending a wafer-thin majority on 8 June.

02:30: Wrexham will declare. Wrexham has been in no overall control since ten Labour councillors, including the council leader, resigned the whip in protest at interference from regional officers. As a result, we won’t get as good an idea as we’d like what this result means for Ian Lucas’s chances of holding onto to Wrexham, which narrowly stayed Labour in 2015.

03:00:  It’s raining Welsh councils. Cardiff (Labour controlled, Liberal Democrats looking to recover lost ground in a council they ran until 2012) , Flintshire (Labour in coalition with independents facing Liberal Democrats), Merthyr Tydfil (Labour controlled having been run by a Liberal coalition with Indepedents from 2008 to 2012), and the improbably-named Neath Port Talbot  (Labour hegemony).

In terms of general election battles, look at how the Conservatives do in the wards making up Cardiff North, which they are defending, and Cardiffs West and South, which they hope to take. Look out for how the Labour-Liberal Democrat battle works out in Cardiff Central, too. In Flintshire, keep an eye out for the results in Delyn and Alyn and Deeside, where Labour’s Mark Tami and David Hanson face tough re-election bids against the Tories.

The great unknown is how well Ukip will do. Ukip have performed strongly in Wales but the last time these seats were up, in 2012, the party hadn’t enjoyed its 2013-4 surge and now it is in institutional crisis. They are standing fewer candidates though some former Kippers may do well as independents.

Then the English mainland finally gets on the act, as county councils in Dorset (narrow Conservative majority) , Essex, Gloucestershire (narrow Conservative majority) and Lincolnshire (Conservatives in coalition with Liberal Democrats and independents), Somerset (Conservative majority), Warwickshire (no overall control) declare.

In Dorset, watch out how the Liberal Democrats do, particularly in the wards of Mid Dorset and Poole,  which they held until 2015 and then lost on a massive swing. We’d expect a reversion to the mean for the Liberal Democrats on 8 June as they come off the back of their very bad losses in the 2015 general election. So look out for signs of that here. For Labour, their best hope comes within South Dorset, a seat they held until 2010, though unfavorable boundary changes since then make it a safe seat for Richard Drax.  

In Gloucestershire, the Liberal Democrats will be looking for a big performance in the wards of Cheltenham, another 2015 loss, while Labour will hope to build on their 2012 gains in the city of Gloucester itself. Seats in the Cotswolds constituency will give us a good clue as to whether or not the Liberal Democrats’ push into affluent Conservative areas that voted Remain is bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Labour have two marginals to defend, while the Tories have three at a parliamentary level in Lincolnshire. The Tories will hope to defend LincolnBrigg and Goole and Cleethorpes in June, while Labour’s Melanie Onn and Nic Dakin are protecting narrow majorities in Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe respectively.

In Somerset, look out for the scale of the Liberal Democrat revival, particularly in Taunton Deane and Wells where Rebecca Pow and James Heappey are hoping to head off Liberal revivals. Remain-voting Bath in particular is worth keeping an eye on.

Warwickshire is all-blue at a Westminster level, though it contains the marginal seats of Nuneaton, North Warwickshire, and Rugby, which despite its 10,000 vote majority is the emblematic seat Labour would need to win to secure a parliamentary majority. As with all three of those seats, the council race should be a straightforward Tory-Labour battle.

04:00: Look for how Ukip or Ukippers-turned-independent can do in Blaenau Gwent, while the Conservatives hope to take Bridgend – held by Madeleine Moon at Westminster and crucially, Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones at the Assembly level – in June. A good Labour performance here would indicate that the Tories will face a harder time in Wales than the polls suggest.

In Newport, Labour regained their majority – lost in 2008 – in 2012, and the Liberal Democrats and Tories will both hope to eat into it. If the polls are to be believed, both Newport seats are at risk from the Conservatives, so look out for how they do here.

English county councils in Hampshire (Conservative) and Northumberland (no overall control) will declare. In Hampshire, the Liberal Democrats are looking for gains, particularly in Portsmouth South and Eastleigh, both lost in 2015.

04:30: Ceredigion, one of just eight Liberal Democrat defences, is up, but unfortunately, the local council is run by independents and Plaid Cymru so it's unlikely to tell us much unless the Welsh nationalists have an astonishingly good result, in which case, we won’t know much about what these means for Mark Williams’ re-election hopes.

05:00: CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge is scheduled to make his “O” face as the first ever combined authority mayoral result for the West of England comes in. (More accurately, it’s the Bristol-Bath-South Gloucestershire-and-North-East-Somerset mayoralty but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. Irritate a Bath resident and call it the “Greater Bristol” mayor. 

I am v. sceptical that this will come in at the advertised time as Bristol famously counts its results very, very slowly. But this is the only genuine three-way marginal of the mayoralties, though thanks to the form of run-off voting used, I expect there will be a lot of wasted transfers. (If you are a Green voter, it’s not at all clear whether you should put Labour or the Liberal Democrats as your second preference to stop the Tories, for instance.)  

That the Liberal Democrats are standing their still-popular former Bristol MP Stephen Williams as their candidate increases their chances here.

Monmouthshire (Conservative-Liberal coalition), will declare. Labour will hope to become the largest party and take control. Monmouth constituency has a formidable Tory majority of 10,000 despite being Labour until 2005, but is, again, in the ballpark of seats Labour must compete in if it wishes to govern alone. 

05:30: Doncaster mayoralty. Ukip used to talk a big game about taking this kind of thing. Not so much now.

07:00: Vale of Glamorgan will declare. Conservative at Westminster, but run by a minority Labour administration since 2012, Labour must take control and take control comfortably if they are to take the seat back on 8 June.

08:00:  Cumbria, where Labour runs a minority administration, to declare. Look out for how the party performs in the wards of Copeland and Barrow, both of which the party hopes to hold onto from 2015. The Welsh council of Torfaen, a Labour stronghold at both Westminster and local level, will also declare.

08:00-11:00: Sleep.

11:00: The first Scottish result comes in. Unfortunately, it’s from the Orkney Islands, where only independents stand at a local level, so we will learn….not a lot.

Scotlad elects councillors under the single transferable vote system so most of the councils are coalitions. In terms of stress-testing the polls, there are two things to look out for: the first is a general Conservative vote increase. The second is the emergence of what you might call the Unionist front: that is, people voting on constitutional lines across left-right lines. If that happens, the SNP may underperform their voteshare significantly as far as council seats go.

The nightmare for Labour: a massive increase in the Tory vote but no emergence of Unionist tactical voting. That would suggest that not only are the polls showing the Tories up to 30 per cent in Scotland are true, but that there is no electoral dividend for Labour there at all. (This would also be in contrast to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, where Labour lost votes but their vote became more effective thanks to tactical Unionist votes.)

The other thing to watch out for: if people, particularly Green-aligned voters, use these elections to punish the SNP government, which is sort of what we’d expect in regular times, or if they too vote tactically for pro-Yes candidates.

12:00: Stirling, the first Scottish local authority which may tell us anything at all about how the general election is going to play out, reports. The SNP are the largest party but they are in opposition, as a combined Labour-Conservative coalition run the show.

12:30: Clackmannanshire, currently run by the SNP but no overall control. Formerly held by Labour at Westminster and now represented by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Meanwhile, in Wales, Denbighshire will declare. The polls suggest that Labour’s Susan Jones will be out of a job come 9 June. If Labour are going to hold the seat at the general, they will want to take control of the council in May. (It is presently a hung council with Labour the largest party.)

13:00: The Shetland Islands, which like Orkney elect independents, will declare. More interesting for the general will be Angus, where the SNP are the largest party by a distance. If the Tories are going to make gains of the kind forecast in the polls in Scotland, they need to at least be becoming the official opposition in places like Angus.

In England, Devon and Hertfordshire will declare. Devon is a straight Tory-Liberal battle. Hertfordshire is more complex. The Liberal Democrats will want a good result in the wards of Three Rivers while Watford is a three-way marginal. If Labour are to defy the polls and form a government, they should expect to gain seats in the wards making up Stevenage.

 14:00:  In England, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex all declare. Cambridgeshire is the one to watch – if the #LibDemfightback is a thing, we’ll feel it there, in the wards of the city itself in particular.

In Wales, Caerphilly, Conwy, Gwynedd, and Pembrokeshire all declare. Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire and Conwy have large numbers of independents so may not tell us very much about how the general election will pan out.  Caerphily is a straight party battle: it’s a Labour vs Plaid Cymru but it won’t tell us much about how things will play out in the parliamentary seats, where Labour are miles ahead and their opponent is Ukip.

And in Scotland, Dumfries & Galloway, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Inverclyde, Moray, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire all declare. The big one to watch is the Borders – the Conservatives are the largest party but are in opposition to an SNP-Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition. Getting good results in places like this will give us an idea how much the Conservative revival in Scotland will pay dividends in terms of gaining seats.

14:30: Aberdeenshire, East Lothian, and Renfrewshire all declare. Aberdeenshire is the fun one: the SNP are the largest party by a distance at the council and they of course hold the seats at Westminster. But it voted to stay in the United Kingdom by a heavy margin and the Scottish Conservatives won the Holyrood seat last year. If the Tories can become the largest party here, they are headed for a great result in Scotland in June.

15:00: Liverpool City Region will declare. Given my dubiousness about Bristol’s counting proccesses, I reckon Steve Rotheram is in with a chance of being the first person elected to these new combined authorities.

In England, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Surrey and West Sussex declare. Cornwall is run by a Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition, and if there is to be a Liberal revival in that part of the world, it will surely be felt in the council elections. 

In Scotland, Aberdeen, East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, North Ayrshire and West Lothian declare. East Dunbartonshire may give us a hint about Jo Swinson’s chances of taking back the parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats.

 16:00: A little bit of history will likely be made when Labour lose control of Glasgow Council.

The combined authority of Tees Valley should be a routine Labour win. Worry about June if it’s not. Norma Redfern is running for re-election as Labour’s mayor inn North Tyneside, which she ought to win easily.

In England, Labour should consolidate their position in Derbyshire, and win a majority in Lancashire, where they are currently no overall control. If they don’t – and if they slip back in both or either – that will be further evidence that Labour’s dire polling is correct.

17:00: In England, Labour will hope to make gains in Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire. Elsewhere, it’s a Conservative-Liberal fight.

It is very, very, very unlikely that anyone but the Tories will win the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough combined mayoralty. If the Liberal Democrats do it, expect a lot of Conservative MPs to start worrying.   

In Scotland, Edinburgh will declare. Who comes out on top there will be a fascinating pointer as to where Scottish politics is going: the city returned candidates from the SNP, Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats last year. At a council ward-level, it really is anyone’s game.

17:30: The Tories won seats at a clip in the Scottish Parliament last year, including Eastwood. See how they do in East Renfrewshire to see if they have a chance of doing the same to its Westminster equivalent.

18:00: Who will win the Greater Manchester mayoralty? Hint: rhymes with Andy Burnham.  More interesting is the West Midlands mayoralty, where Labour’s Sion Simon faces a strong challenge from the Conservatives’ Andy Street. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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