Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on whistle-blowing: What do Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the Steubenville hacker have in common?

Expose injustice and pay the price.

Bad things happen to whistleblowers right now. Last year, two high-school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, raped an unconscious sixteen-year-old girl over several hours. They took photo footage of themselves doing it, and shared it among their friends. When the pair were finally convicted and sentenced to between one and two years in jail earlier this year, mainstream news outlets wailed that two promising athletes had had their futures ruined, the implication being that the victim really should have shut up and kept quiet and understood that her future and her trauma are far less important than the ambitions of young men.

What was truly shocking, however, was that the case was only prosecuted after a sustained campaign by internet activists, including the protest group Anonymous, which released video and photographic evidence of the crime and drew the world's attention to how little local law enforcement cares about rape victims. Now one of the hackers who helped bring the Steubenville rapists to justice, 26-year-old Deric Lostutter — otherwise known as “KYAnonymous” - is being prosecuted by the FBI

If convicted of computer-related crimes, Lostutter could spend ten years in jail. That's at least five times as long as the rapists. Even if he isn't convicted, his defence could cost hundreds of thousands - he is collecting donations online. Lostutter is entirely unapologetic, and told Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones that he believes that the FBI and Steubenville officials are pursuing him to send a message: “They want to make an example of me, saying, ‘You don’t fucking come after us. Don’t question us.’"

This is how the surveillance state works, and it's also how patriarchy works. The message is: don't tell. Don't ever tell. The people who have power, whether that's the state or the boys on the football team, are allowed to know what you're up to, constantly, intimately, and they can and will punish you for it, but if you turn the tables and show the world how power is abused, you can expect to be fucked with, and fast.

I've been trying for a while now to convince the geek activists and hackers in my life that the fight for the principles of free speech, the fight against surveillance and the fight for a society where whistleblowers are protected, is a feminist fight. Steuvenville isn't the only case where the internet has pursued justice for rape victims where the state was unwilling to do so. There is a growing awareness that commitment to openness and transparency as organising principles necessarily involves a commitment to a new kind of sexual politics. Patriarchy doesn't like it when you tell its secrets, and neither does the government.

Secrecy is only supposed to work for the strong against the weak. Right now Edward Snowden, the former CIA technical operative who leaked data exposing the extent of Anglo-American state internet surveillance to the world, is in hiding in Hong Kong. Snowden, 29, sacrificed everything to tell the world. "The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things," Snowden told the Guardian. "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under." When asked what he thought was going to happen to him now, Snowden replied: "Nothing good."

For now, Edward Snowden is safe. At Fort Meade, Bradley Manning isn't. The Wikileaks whistleblower is preparing to spend the rest of his life in jail for putting private information about US foreign policy, including the murder of civilians in Iraq, in the public domain. It's no accident that both Manning and Snowden are former soldiers who served in Iraq and enlisted because, in Snowden's words, "I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression." Both were quickly disabused of the notion that the American war in the Middle East is achieving anything of the sort, were horrified to find themselves complicit, and decided to do something about it.

Edward Snowden. Bradley Manning. Deric Lostutter. These young people are on the frontlines of a different war, a war of the old world of violence enforced by secrecy against the new logic of information transparency. It is generational, and it is gendered, and it's about values. The MO of national security, in a world where both the nation state and the notion of security are tenuous ideals, holds that any state should be able to access any information about any person at any time, but not vice versa. You can't ever turn off the internet, nor prevent people having access to it, so ordinary people must learn to fear cracking or publish the private data of state and corporate institutions. We must learn to be silent, to keep secrets, or pay for doing not doing so with our freedom, and possibly with our lives.

Right now, a few brave souls are refusing to learn that lesson. The risks they are taking today will affect how states operate in the future, wherever we live; they will decide whether an information-rich society frees people to have more control over our lives or simply allows governments more control over people. What these hackers are writing isn't just history - it's the base code of future human relations, on the most intimate level. And it’s not just even about the state.

It takes us right back to that kitchen in Steubenville, Ohio, and those pictures of that half-naked teenager slung like a dead deer between her rapists. It’s about who, in the future, will be allowed to hurt and abuse other people and expect complicity. It’s about who will be allowed to speak up and call out, and who will be made to pay the price.
 

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

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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