In case you didn’t notice, just recently a number of web giants, as well as innumerable other websites, went “dark” in protest against the attempts to control the internet by the US government. But the US isn’t the first nation to attempt this. Iran, Turkey, India, China, and to the eternal shame of all Australians, my own nation, have set up, or plan to set up, controls over the internet.
Some of this is part of the encroaching copyright hegemony of Hollywood, and the music industry, or religious and moral concerns. However, the bulk of it is due to a single, simple, fact: governments and their bureaucracies like to acquire control, and once they have it, will not give it up without a fight. Over time, the once-free internet (funded by the US Department of Defence initially) has become hedged in with legal obligations for ISPs and website hoisters that no telephone company or postal service would have endured. Now, the default opinion is that if somebody may use your service to do something illegal, it is no longer the responsibility of the police and courts to find, punish and stop these crimes. It is not the responsibility of the companies and individuals who are thus exploited.
Once upon a time, punishment followed the crime, and the people who committed the criminal acts were held to account. Now, punishment not only can precede the crime, but individuals who happen to be inadvertently involved can also be punished, even if, and this seems to me to undercut the very existence of our code of law, they had no way to prevent themselves being involved in the criminal act!
So if someone happens to use my car for a crime, I can be punished by having my car confiscated, without any proof I was involved or knew of the crime ahead of time, and without any charges being laid and tested in court. This principle of pre-emptive punishment is more than draconian, it is Kafkaesque. It makes no sense, legally. The only justification for it has to be that it means statutory instruments of government can control the situation as they wish, without either having to do due diligence of investigation and evidence gathering, or testing their claims in open court.
We are living, I am afraid to say, in the dawn of the world of totalitarianism. It has been coming for a while. Recently I had occasion to re-read the opening chapter of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, first published in 1964. He was thought by most people at the time to be a red rag communist (and he was certainly a Marxist in that philosophical manner of academics) and so he was ignored by the establishment and féted, to his bemusement, by the radical left of the late 1960s. When I read him, I was put off by the Hegelian language and the fact that he was a “leftist”, but it seems to me that while his prescriptions might be unworkable (if he actually presented any), his analysis was spot on. The opening paragraphs lay it out:
A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources.
That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development. The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were – just as free enterprise, which they served to promote and protect – essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one. Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they had become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premises.
To the degree to which freedom from want, the concrete substance of all freedom, is becoming a real possibility, the liberties which pertain to a state of lower productivity are losing their former content. Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasing!y capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organised. [p1]
I could quote much more, but it is clear that Marcuse, along with other critics of the post-war consumer society, recognised that freedom was only permitted so long as it served economic and political needs; when those needs evaporated, the freedoms would also evaporate. And so we see this happening now. The core function of the internet, and indeed all communications technologies today, is to serve “the economy”. Buy and sell on the internet by all means, but do not express yourself outside permitted boundaries.
The encroachment of copyright on older materials that once served to fuel cultural development is a case in point. What is gained by applying copyright protection to works from the pre-war period? Why can’t I put a Mickey Mouse image from the 1920s on my blog without paying a corporation that has way too much wealth as it stands? It is like a large part of my culture, youth and upbringing are censored already. But if the author has died, the investment to that author has been ruled off; and those who benefit are now corporate entities like companies, governments and other institutions.
The control over communication is a crucial element of a totalitarian control by governments, and even when a government is not yet, or likely to be in the future, totalitarian, it can still have unwarrantable control over the lives of people. Given the ratchet effect of gaining but never giving up control over people that governments are subjected to, we should fight hard to both prevent them getting more control, even when it seems like it is necessary, and to remove controls for which there are no good reasons apart from tradition. And in all cases, we should make sure that the claims of those with controlling powers are tested out in the open at every stage.
This means no more closed court cases, orders and laws forbidding people to even let their families and lawyers know they have been charged. It means that we must be free to communicate even when others may think it wrong or leading to a crime. Until a crime has been committed, nobody has a right to block communications. And even then, blocking them must be done out in the open.
When a totalitarian government like the Stalinism of the Soviets or the North Koreans takes hold, people share information in secret, in Samizdat. Governments hate this form of communication and will do everything they can to impede it; this is what we are seeing in the west and developing nations now. Other ways to impede communication include the time honoured technique of making certain kinds of speech defamatory and putting the onus not on those who would claim to have been defamed to prove it, but on those who speak to prove they are not. This has the effect of making free speech only available to those with the money and lawyers to pursue such actions, while it chills everybody else. Copyright and corporate protections like SOPA and PIPA have the same effect. I now can’t quote somebody in a publication for academic publishing, even in the light of “fair use” provisions, without written permission and payment of fees, as I have discovered in several cases. If you think that doesn’t chill my speech, you don’t understand how it all works.
It can only be a matter of time before the Wayback Machine at archive.org is served with copyright violations for mirroring what people put out in public. Instead of serving claims against those who first made the material public (often the very people now claiming the violation against them), it is so much easier, and serves so many corporate (that is, commercial, government and institutional) interests, to attack the host service. This has an added bonus of allowing people to control what they are seen to be doing. In the old days, you could go check a newspaper or printed pamphlet in a library; now you can’t. We can rewrite historical evidence at last…
We are in the endarkenment. Where once we thought information would lead us to truth, we now fear that in fact it might just do that, and truth is no longer what we, or our masters who tell us what we must value, desire. We instead have a comfortable unfreedom. Dark days indeed.