The net and democracy

Until Snowden we lived in the illusion that the social networks gave us unlimited capacity for action

Is the internet a tool of liberation or oppression? Until Edward Snowden came along we seem to have lived in the happy illusion that the internet and the social networks gave us an unlimited capacity for organization and action. The social networks, we were told, not only empowered us socially but also provided us with a potent political tool. Twitter and Facebook, together with Google’s capacity for disseminating an incredible volume of information in real time, had become a new weapon for citizen supervision of the government, and of resistance to tyranny. Like the press, radio and television before it, the internet now offered the citizen a way out from authoritarian monopolies on information. This is what we might call the horizontal or libertarian view of technology. And though sometimes exaggerated, as in the supposed revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt (which were far from such), this vision did foster a reasonable hope that technology and democracy might be solid allies.

But since Snowden we have had to concede greater weight to the other vision, that we might call authoritarian or vertical. Because, however much we suspected it — remember the Echelon revelations — we now know that while millions of citizens blithely use the internet and social networks, a number of states have the capacity for vertical control of the net and its content.

The US authorities’ line of defense is centered on, first, the claim that their listening capacity is confined to so-called metadata — that is, there is no scrutiny of content but only of flows; two, that there is only exceptional access, under strict judicial control, to the complete content, as is traditional in telephone taps; and three (not applicable to the rest of us), that the objects of such surveillance have never been US citizens within the United States.

But this sugar-coated version seems to have little truth to it. Snowden’s revelations to the magazine Cryptome note that intelligence service access to undersea cables carrying internet data allows it complete access to all the content traveling along them, the only problem being storage and processing capacity, which is now around 72 hours, after which they are erased. Keeping in mind the speed at which these things progress, it stands to reason that the 72-hour limit will soon stretch further. So that, if you know what you are looking for, access will be complete. Which covers everything to do with the individual in question: medical reports, the works.

We can look at this from two angles: the citizen’s (technology and democracy) and the state’s (technology and control). From the first, we have to think more seriously about how to control the great multinationals of social communication, which, though they empower us socially, are also at the service of those who wish to control us. If citizens want to ensure liberty, they have to force these companies to decide whom they are going to serve, the state or their customers, and show us good reasons why we should believe them.

As for the state’s angle, we have to ask to what extent it is true that the rise of the emerging countries involves an equalization of the power of states, and an end to American hegemony. Are we really moving toward a sort of world in which the US is just one power among many? Or are we looking at a US capacity to perpetuate its hegemonic position on a basis of a technological-military capacity clearly superior to that of any competitor? The horizontality of the United States, like that of the citizen, might well be another mirage.

From time immemorial, political authority has been structured in such a way that, at home, the few have governed the many while, abroad, the international system has been organized hierarchically, with a small center of power and an extensive periphery. In all cases, domination has been based on superior technological capacity. So why should things be any different now?