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18 December 1998

New Media Awards – Why geeks are heroes of democracy

The open net that we know could turn into an instrument of state power

By Andrew Brown

One of the pervading ironies of the Internet is that it was largely built by anarchists but paid for by the military; both parties believed that they were getting a technology that would make their dreams come true. The anarchist or technolibertarian dream is that computers would make possible a disembodied freedom. The military saw in them devices to wage wars and build huge bureaucracies.

The oddest thing is that both sides were right. The paradox is nicely expressed by one of the foundational cliches of the net: that it will be impossible to censor because it was built to survive a nuclear war. This sounds libertarian only for as long as it takes you to work out that it also means the net was built in order to help fight a nuclear war. So a competition to find democratic uses of the Internet is not a self-congratulatory exercise in finding nice things to do with our new toys. It is an urgent and important means to stimulate thought about the dangers of the medium.

The sort of answers we need are political and social, not mechanical. We tend to think of technology as neutral – it is not in itself good or evil – but that is not true of particular technologies. It’s hard to think of a really benign use for nerve gas, or a malevolent use of antibiotics, and this is partly a consequence of the aims of their inventors. One of the lessons of the last two centuries is that geeks are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, and that the rewards of good geekery are shared with the whole world.

In the case of the net, we enjoy its technological benefits because of essentially political decisions taken by people who had foresight, as well as the specialised knowledge to understand what they were doing. We all owe a huge debt to the drug-addled hippies who designed the net. There’s nothing natural about its being an open and democratic network, into which any device can be plugged that obeys simple rules. It is that kind of network because that is what the founders wanted to build.

But it would have been perfectly possible to build instead huge networks that are closed to the outside world. Armies need them; so do banks and multinational corporations. They would work almost as well as what we have at present, but they would lend themselves even more naturally to oppression and lying.

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The reason it is important to stimulate democratic uses of the net is because the undemocratic ones are growing without any stimulation from the likes of us.

The Internet makes possible a degree of surveillance and control which would have made Stalin salivate and Kim Il Sung break into song like a canary. There is already a thriving market in “Nannycams”, small video cameras which watch your nursery over the web in case the nanny is misbehaving. Since it is one of the foundational principles of the Internet that anything can be hooked up to it, from computer keyboards to Coke machines, it’s easy to see that everything we do can be monitored by someone. Companies can monitor every single keystroke of every employee all day if they want to; and, in more and more jobs, thinking, no matter how private, is something that our fingers do on the keyboard.

Even without such elaborate schemes, the persistence of e-mail is a terrible threat to privacy. Just ask poor Monica Lewinsky, whose love letters and diaries were published for all the world to see. Remember the televisions in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which watched the proles who watched them? We’re about to get exactly that technology, only it will be called “interactive TV” and the cream of the joke is that the happy shoppers will themselves input all the information anyone could want. Everything they watch, everything they want to buy, all the letters that they write and all the phone calls they make will be recorded by this one box of digital delights.

This information will not go to governments directly, but to large corporations, where it will be stored in “data warehouses” and mined for ways to make money.

But this is not much of a protection of privacy, for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that large corporations are not particularly benevolent entities, except to their largest shareholders. And the larger they get, the more data they will accumulate and the more this will come to form a unified whole which someone can access, licitly or not. In the global village, the postmistress knows everything about every villager.

The second point is that governments are eager to get hold of the information that large corporations collect, and have the power to do so, legally or otherwise. Only bad and undemocratic governments would spy on their own citizens; but no government sees anything wrong in arranging to spy on foreigners. That is why the American government is trying so very hard to prevent the spread of strong encryption, which they cannot break, and why the British security services are doing their best to help them.

The arguments over encryption do not all go one way: unrestricted privacy for criminals and terrorists is itself undemocratic. But complete government control over these technologies is even more worrying. Some of these ill effects are already with us; some may be averted. But in either case, what will keep us free is an informed interest in technology and constant vigilance about its abuses and, since nothing could possibly be more boring, the way to achieve that is to make it fun.

Andrew Brown writes a weekly column on the Internet for the “New Statesman”.

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