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Culture, Reality

Lolcat Authoritarianism

by Chris McMichael / 09.05.2012

As Julian Stallabrass recently observed, views about the effects of social networks and other new information technology on politics are deeply polarised. On the one hand, Web 2.0 has been viewed as the greatest tool for human emancipation since the invention of the printing press, given credence by the role played by social networks and smart phones in the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests. Apart from being organisational platforms for coordinating mass action, the examples of Tunisia and Egypt shows how the airing of official dirt over the internet can have ‘real world’ consequences: the revelations contained in the Wikileaks cables were among the catalysts which helped to push popular anger about the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes onto the streets. But on the other hand, these technologies have also been presented as a tool of containment: a space where people can waste their time on stupid memes and the specialised realms of porno, while continually updating their private movements, feelings and rants in a way that is readily accessible by governments and corporate advertisers alike. A kind of soft, Lolcat authoritarianism.

Without getting into the merits of the debate, it is clear that police and military establishments throughout the world are increasingly viewing the net as a new theatre of risk and disorder. Whether it’s coached in terms of protecting intellectual property rights or defeating vaguely sketched ‘national security threats’ there have been moves to exert control over emerging communicative territories. From the US, the push for laws like SOPA and PIPA, while politicians have called for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning’s heads on pikes for all too see. In South Africa, the government seems more immediately concerned with protecting state secrets through the Protection of Information Bill rather than monitoring communications. However RICA, which typically was passed as an ‘anti-crime’ measure, has a huge potential for repression as it allows service providers to hold consumer data for an unspecified period of time. For example, there is a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence which suggests that the State Security Agency (SSA) is using RICA to access the private phone numbers of activists for the purpose of old school verbal harassment. This has been accompanied by attempts to intensify the SSA’s remit for ‘signal interception’ which would allow for much more comprehensive monitoring of everyday communications.

The next few years may also see the internet become an actual medium for warfare rather than just a platform for greater surveillance. One of the last desperate acts of the Mubarak government was to briefly “kill’ internet and mobile services in Egypt, while the UK government came close to shutting down social networks during the August riots. These counter-measures are not just about controlling populations but are also being driven by the emergence of inter-state cyber warfare conducted through targeted virus attacks on digital infrastructure. The US and Israeli Defence Force have all but admitted that they were responsible for creating the 2010 Stuxnet virus which was aimed at Iranian nuclear facilities. More recently, the Chinese have been accused of attempting to hack into US drones.

It’s often assumed that efforts to enforce a surveillent order over the internet are technophile fantasies as the sheer volume of information defies attempts at tracking. However, the testimony of whistleblower William Binney, a former employee of the highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA) suggests that the US government, aided by commercial companies, does in fact have the ability to record most domestic communications. Furthermore, a recent report from the Brookings institute argues that ‘plummeting digital storage costs’ will soon allow governments everywhere to perform ‘retrospective surveillance’, using data pulled from everything from phone records to CCTV footage. ‘These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets’.

The ever pioneering Facebook is offering it assistance in leading the charge by hiring lobbyists to push for a new bill which would allow companies to spy on user information and to freely pass along personal information to government agencies. Up until now, I always thought that real danger of Facebook was drunken status updates along the line of “MY BOSS CAN EAT A DICK”, having said employees see your classy photos from Bong Fest ’08 or dealing with the crazed provocations of sociopathic ex-girlfriends. Now it’s the fact that some spook could, in theory, have access to all kinds of individual details, affiliations and beliefs. Although this may be the logical development of social networks: As both Julian Assange and The Onion have pointed out, Facebook has the potential to be a rapidly assembled, 24-7 voluntary surveillance machine, made all the more potent by its ubiquity.

The official line on Facebook propagated by Mark Zuckerberg and co is that it offers a new form of community in an age of post-privacy: communication unhindered by space, time and censorship. This technological utopianism is contrasted by a far more consistent reality of corporate data mining and storage. This disjuncture between libertarian fantasies and actual control is itself reflective of the ‘Californian Ideology’ found within elements of the computer industry. In this ‘dot com neoliberalism’, computers are supposed to create new virtual autonomous zones free of the repressive hand of the state. But in practice advances in computing have served to entrench corporate control over online life, while many of the innovations coming out of Silicon Valley and other development hubs have been enabled by defence contracts.

Efforts to exert greater state control over the internet are also being cheer-led by a vast array of security companies, offering solutions to a host of real and imagined threats, from identity theft to claims that groups like Anynomous could take down entire national power grids! This is been given further traction by a shift within the global ‘homeland security industry’ away from panics about terrorism and illegal immigrants to the ‘threat’ posed by a disenchanted public. The avant garde of military planning has recently focused on the dangers of ‘extremists’ using communications technology to rapidly mobilise ‘violent demonstrations’. Although these fears predate the events of the last year it seems reasonable to assume that in era when political and economic systems are undergoing a profound crisis of legitimacy, these kinds of prediction will gain greater traction with fearful governments. To appropriate a term from computing, the cutting edge of national security may soon be counter-measures against a ‘global (non) passive enemy’.

There is a crucial difference between policing the internet, such as preventing child pornography and fraud, and the attempts to militarise cyberspace by turning it into the ‘fifth battlespace’ alongside land, sea, air and space. This is indicative of the nature of war in the early 21st century which is no longer primarily about nation states facing off against each other. Instead, war exists within states and across borders, from functionally endless public safety wars against crime and drugs to the open-ended conflicts being played out along the US-Mexico Border to the drone saturated skies of what is now called the ‘Af-Pak’ war. Although these innovations are being driven by the Pentagon, South Africa’s security establishments have been quick to incorporate the doctrines of the ‘everywhere war’ ideology. SAPS commanders talk about how there are no longer ‘static borders’ while hawkish Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisuslu has claimed that the army needs to gear up for ‘non-traditional’ threats. This kind of thinking rapidly turns into the treatment of social problems as ‘threats’ and the criminalisation of dissent.

There is a weird symmetry in efforts to militarise cyberspace as much of the computer science which plays such a pivotal role in modern life has its origins in defence research. And that’s exactly why the civilinisation of this technology must be protected. Apart from the advantages it offers for almost every aspect of daily life, advances in computing offer unparalleled future developments in science, medicine and exploration. At the political level, the internet serves to disrupt the sophisticated reality management techniques of state and capital. For example, if not for the readily available counter-surveillance offered by smart phone technology, many of the incidents of SAPS brutality which have been recorded with shocking regularity over the last few years would have been buried in official statements about ‘violent crowds’. Groups such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign have short-circuited the hostile receptions of the local state, NGOs and academia and gained international exposure through clever usage of websites and mailing lists. And just as these movements have fought for the right to the city, the creeping militirisation of the internet must be equally resisted to prevent it becoming a monitored pseudo-public space where the terms and conditions are decided off screen.

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