The free and unfettered access to information and technology is a privilege I often take for granted – most Americans do. Emily Parker’s Now I know Who My Comrades Are and Rebecca McKinnon’s Consent of the Networked, bring that realization squarely to the forefront. Access to the awe inspiring power of the internet is something certain countries simply don’t allow.
Imagine a world where you are completely isolated from the truth, forced to gather information from a faucet filtered by the government. A world where you can be unaware of tragedy and disaster, supported by the disillusioned, mutual ignorance of your personal network. It sounds awful. It sounds Orwellian. But in fact, it is actually China – or at least a version of China that the majority experience. As I read Parker’s “Comrades”, I envisioned the story of Michael Anti’s revelation about the true atrocity of the Tiananmen Square protests. I pictured his realization, having been told a completely inaccurate accounting of the day’s events, similar to a scene from the Usual Suspects, where Chaz Palminteri drops his coffee mug in earth shattering realization that he had just been fed a fabricated accounting by none other than Keyser Soze.
Equally shocking was MacKinnon’s referencing of a 2005 PBS crew unable to get Chinese students to identify the iconic Tiananmen Square photo. It reinforces the effects of a country willing and interested in blocking its citizenry from necessary and important information. While some argue that blocking websites is not an effective mechanism of control, it does play upon the apathy of the average citizen, largely content with consuming their daily dose of state-designed news. For those with a desire for the truth, you need the know-how to circumvent the restrictions. Again, some may argue that the use of a VPN or proxy server is not difficult, but if it was easy and convenient then China would have more than 1% of its online population capable of accessing the other side of the Great Fire Wall (GFW) of China. Interestingly, MacKinnon notes that improvement in the performance of Tencent, Baidu and Allibaba will only exacerbate the apathetic approach toward accessing information outside the GFW.
It seems clear from the readings that there are many ways to block, obscure and obfuscate. Certain countries see value in different approaches to information access, press and privacy. MacKinnon, citing Philip Howard from the University of Washington, states “how governments manage these technologies has a major impact on whether activists can actually succeed in using technology to change.” These differences can be seen in Cuba, where fear supersedes activism; in Russia, where they have legalized surveillance; and in Syria where the government does not limit your access, but coopts your experience to drive home the message of the state. All outstanding examples of networked authoritarianism.
Next, you cannot discuss issues around access to information without a discussion about the responsibilities that come with possessing said information. A prime example of someone who has access to information, yet acts in misguided reference to responsibility is Julian Assange. As outlined in Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker piece, Assange believes he has started a “social movement” with WikiLeaks. A movement intent on exposing secrets. While you may not be able to challenge Assange’s commitment to the cause, his intent is misaligned and void of any redeeming qualities. His so-called “social movement” includes no semblance of social responsibility. He leaks with reckless abandon, unconcerned for the damage left in his wake. Worse, he accepts the damage noting the inevitability of blood on his hands. This hypocrisy is ever-present in Assange’s Plan B, Apache Helicopter video he ironically calls “Collateral Murder”, yet remains disinterested in the collateral damage he causes. This notion of “power without accountability” that Khatchadourian raises is the perfect summation of the hypocritical nature of Assange. He claims WikiLeaks was created to root out such an unacceptable dynamic, but yet it seems to embody the very essence of this imbalance, as Assange refuses to stand on his merits and answer any of the lawsuits thrown his way.
Many compare Assange and Edward Snowden as one in the same. For me, they represent very different ideals. Assange represents what Jaron Lanier would call a “random leaker”, for which he says “is no substitute for focused digging.” Snowden, on the other hand, was specific and thoughtful in his approach. As someone who maintains top level clearance from DHS, I in no way condone the treason he has allegedly committed, but I can see fit to separate his intentions from those of Assange. Snowden has been described as a man with a conscience that took a deliberate act against an institution he felt violated the law and the public’s trust. He was deliberate and coordinated in his release of information, perhaps as a result of concern for its unintended consequences. Most whistleblowers act from their conscience, and not their crude attempt at flaunting their power over you.
Regardless of how history views Assange and Snowden – separately or similarly – they will have considerable company. For as Bruce Sterling warns, and I have heeded, “…there’s more coming. Lots, lots more.”