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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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.