The freedom cloud

The tools that help Arab democracy protesters also extend the reach of three United States corporations. The power of Facebook, Google, and Twitter represents an appropriation of the hacker-utopian ideals of the early internet, says Becky Hogge. The challenge to those who still uphold these ideals is to recover a true freedom path.

Becky Hogge
29 March 2011

It’s a Tuesday morning in February 2011. From an exhilarated Cairo, a correspondent on BBC radio’s flagship news programme Today reports on the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Then Anouar Swed, a young Libyan expatriate living in London, talks to the co-presenter James Naughtie. BBC and other western journalists are not yet able to enter Libya from newly liberated Egypt and Tunisia. But Anouar is in contact with her friends and family inside the country, mostly by SMS, and on the basis of their accounts says that people in the capital Tripoli are being shot “left, right and centre”.

At the end of the interview, Anouar asks listeners to visit Facebook and search for World Medical Camp for Libya, or to email [email protected] with “anything they can participate with as soon as possible”. In an instant the appeal puts the incipient turmoil in Colonel Gaddafi's Libya into the same context of internet-driven and technology-supported protest that had in previous weeks been sweeping through its neighbours.

The degree of influence of these tools in the popular risings that started in Tunisia and Egypt and have since spread eastwards to Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and even Syria remains in dispute. But that many Arabs - often young, educated, ambitious, idealistic, and frustrated - have been able to use them to share information and coordinate protest against authoritarian rule is indisputable.

In Tunisia, the self-immolation of a despairing young market-trader in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid sparked local riots which were brought to national and international attention by the combined use of mobile-shot videos, Facebook and broadcasters like al-Jazeera - as well as the spiking of the hashtag #sidibouzid on Twitter. In Egypt, the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” - named after one of the many torture victims of Egypt’s brutal police - helped galvanise nationwide resistance to a corrupt regime. Wherever there is protest elsewhere in the region, from Iran in the east to Morocco in the west, the new-media tools are part of the scene.

In this respect, Anouar Swed’s intervention - a dissident (albeit proxy) voice from inside Libya when broadcasting giants were still stranded at the border - looks part of a great historical tide.

Open door vs closing window

There is no certainty and a lot of debate about just how much the new tools have contributed to the ongoing process of political change in the middle east (or elsewhere). The vacuum of understanding is filled by endless speculation, whose probable overall effect is to overstate the role of Twitter, Facebook and the rest in the Arab renaissance.

Why should this be? In part because such speculation is a fun and lucrative business; in part because so many of those in the west doing it - even if our general understanding of the Arab world is a broken patchwork of neocon propaganda and Indiana Jones pastiche - use Twitter and Facebook every day, and are tempted to inflate the power of our compulsive toys. But also for the more forgivable reason that new technology - like any immigrant into our imaginations - perfectly fulfils the alternating roles of god and scapegoat humans seem to require to explain (or ignore) complex social and political issues.

To explore this intimate ambiguity a little further leads away from the great events across north Africa and the middle east and towards core political, technical and commercial arguments about the capacity of the new technologies to advance freedom. The difference of context may be less than it appears, and in a larger perspective prove less important than the underlying question faced in each case: whether the most powerful of the current tools are less a door to the future than a window of opportunity that is now closing.

The new gatekeepers

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” These words, written in 1996 by the scribe of the then-infant worldwide web (and lyricist of the rock-band Grateful Dead) John Perry Barlow, are the inspirational banner under which old-school cyber-utopians still march.

Their enemy was/is the intermediary, an enduringly important concept in the movement’s vocabulary for its ability to convey the stifling character of those institutions which, so the theory goes, are destined to crumble before the all-powerful yet benign force of the global network. The precise identity of these intermediaries - or gatekeepers - will depend on each cyber-utopian group’s preference, but they are bound to include empires of informational power such as governments, corporations, and the “legacy” media (from the emasculated BBC to the rampant Murdoch empire).

The utopians go by another, often misunderstood, name: hacker. A hacker likes to take things apart, to see how they work. A sub-group of hackers work only for their own interests. But many seek the public good. They act like a volunteer building inspector, trespassing on society’s digital architecture to ensure it is fit for public purposes. They dislike intermediaries, especially ones that keep information from them or stop them disassembling things to understand how they function. You could say that a hacker wants control, and that might be true of some. But most hackers are driven by a desire for autonomy and self-determination, for the freedom to create; to do more than consume what is offered to them by powerful institutions.

Hackers are an inclusive bunch, and usually don’t object to extended use of the term. In their own way the dedicated, self-motivated activists that helped seed Egypt’s revolution are also hackers. This is reflected in the media’s resort to the jargon of the techno-utopian world of the 1990s to describe them: “small pieces loosely joined” in a “network” that is “connected”, whose news and appeals spread “virally” in a way that allows them to act in an “agile” yet “loosely coordinated” way, organising protests that become a “meme” and ultimately even the revolution - a “network effect” itself.

Yet the promiscuity of language is also a trap, in that the web tools of the Arab renaissance are very far from those of the cyber-utopians. Facebook is a hierarchy, not a network. Twitter is a hierarchy, not a network. Gmail is a hierarchy, not a network. Yes, those of us who use these tools are “networked”: we are, as the utopians would say, loosely joined. But we are also fused to the corporate giants that provide and profit from these tools, through whose buzzing servers our intimate or banal exchanges pass.

Arbor Networks, itself a giant in the world of network security, estimates  that about 60% of all web traffic terminates at about 150 companies, and 30% of all web traffic terminates at about thirty companies: including Google, Facebook and Twitter. These US corporations are the hypergiants, the new intermediaries or gatekeepers, and they are beginning to dominate the net.

The dream for sale

It was not meant to be this way. My first website was hosted in a machine in the basement of a house-share in east London. It served lovingly html-coded screeds on the techie issues of the day, screeds which in turn got me my first job on a magazine. The day a popular blog posted a link to something I’d written, it brought down my home internet connection, prompting an angry call to my place of work from a housemate trying to finish his PhD. They called it many-to-many communication, and that’s exactly what it was.

But much like those back-to-the-land communards of the 1960s who gave up farming after one season showed them how hard it was, communicatory self-sufficiency turned out to be...well, hard. First, the rise of spam drove even those hackers who knew how to set up their own mail client to shelter under the collective protection of email providers like Google and Yahoo. Then, the need of people like me to avoid the ire of studious housemates led us to move to commercial providers as a way of keeping separate the connections that served home and website. The real buzz-kill, though, was when the message joined the medium - and that happened when the worldwide web became Web 2.0.

Web 2.0, rather as did the “third way” of ambitious centre-left political leaders in the 1990s, betrayed the early purist ideologues in favour of wooing a mass market. Instead of Indymedia, it offered social media. Instead of unbounded communicatory possibility, it offered checkboxes and character limits. Instead of full exposure to the perils and pitfalls of human nature, it offered a series of walled gardens, neatly cultivated and weeded of unsavoury elements. The new gates to these walled gardens were inscribed with their keepers’ names: Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, Foursquare and MySpace. They were insanely popular, and in many cases made their deeply relaxed Silicon Valley owners filthy rich.

Before 11 December 2010, just a week before Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid, the hacker’s lament at this “re-intermediation” of the network would have been largely theoretical. But on that day, Amazon responded to political pressure by removing Wikileaks’ website from their servers, erasing the whistleblowing project in an instant (albeit temporarily).

This appeared a clear case of extra-judicial censorship by the United States, the supposed first defender of the right to free speech. The problem for this view is that Amazon, a commercial company, has every right to choose what travels over their wires - and no responsibility to maintain the openness, inclusiveness or health of public discourse.

The point of control

The Arab awakening that was inspired in the same week as Amazon wielded its own weapon is to some the next major realisation of the hacker-utopian ideal. The fact that the vigorous protest movements in north Africa that have written themselves into the history of their societies are, in their cyber aspect at least, fuelled by three US corporations may matter less to participants facing an authoritarian power-structure of another kind. But as they develop further, the limits of these virtual “pseudo-public spaces” are bound to become more apparent.

It was against the corporate transformation and undermining of public space, detailed by Naomi Klein in her millennial polemic No Logo, that John Perry Barlow’s “citizens of the future” hoped the net would push. Instead, a technology that gave citizens the ability to retrieve public space and public discourse from corporate control has turned into something beyond the worst imaginings of Klein’s anti-globalisation movement: a vehicle of corporate hypergiants possessed of unmatched efficiency in selling back to citizen-consumers their own expression and desire.

The broader trend is that the “internet freedom” proclaimed by everyone from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton downwards is becoming a cargo-cult. The response of many non-western leaders is to seek ways to resist a trend whereby US intermediaries present the US government with a single point of control - and to establish that single point of control for themselves.

As Evgeny Morozov observes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already used the fact that the US state department coordinated with Twitter during Iran’s failed “Twitter revolution” of 2009 to douse revolutionary zeal with anti-American sentiment. Since then, Vladimir Putin has issued a decree that all software used by public bodies in Russia should be open source, in order to guard against real and imagined back doors engineered in proprietary US products like Microsoft Windows at the orders of the US government. China’s “national net” is an image of the internet’s possible future: an archipelago of mutually isolated worlds.

The reverse switch

Could there still be another way? Around the same time Anouar Swed was talking on BBC radio, the legal academic Eben Moglen was telling the New York chapter of the Internet Society about an innovation he calls the “freedom box”: a low-power plug-server running free and open-source software that every internet user could install at home. The point of the box is that it is contained within the four walls of the person(s) whose privacy and autonomy it affects. Your social-networking profile could be served from the box, your server logs kept safely encrypted on it. In effect, the freedom box is the equivalent of the server that ran in the basement of my east London houseshare - a recovery of the days when the many-to-many communications network was just that.

For Moglen, the freedom box reverses the “server-client” image that has led networked computing down a wrong path where it catches up with a politics and geopolitics going in the same direction. To some, the reversal looks a near-impossibly ambitious hacker-utopian dream. But it might just work, not least as Eben Moglen has form. Together with Richard Stallman he is one of the founders of the free-software movement and one of the long-term custodians of free-software’s success.

That matters, for today more web servers run the free operating system Linux and the free server client Apache than any other competing products (including Microsoft). Apache serves around 60% of the world’s busiest websites. Without free software Google, Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t exist. The web wouldn’t exist without free software. And insofar as social movements owe much of their growth to free software, the Arab renaissance - or at least its web component - might not either. This historical tide may be a quiet one, but it has an honourable place in the struggle everywhere to define what freedom in the 21st century can become.

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