Part 1 of 3 part series.
“I was brought up and trained in the Internet Age by people who really believed that nation states were on the verge of crumbling…and we could geek around it. We could avoid it [The Nation State]. These people were irrelevant.” -Susan Crawford Former President Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2010 New York City.
It is often an awkward moment when I present the statement above to my (generally liberal) musician friends and academic colleagues and then tell them it came from an Obama administration official. Yikes! Is usual reaction. To be fair, the statement itself is not the problem. It is profoundly prescient. The problem with Crawfords statement (watch the video) is she clearly thought “geeking around” the nation state was a good thing at the time! It is only in a post Cambridge Analytics world this statement seems quite sinister. Although Vladmir might disagree.
Obama was elected on promises of change from politics as usual. Like many other people I took him at his word and voted for him. And in many ways he fulfilled his promises. Obama cobbled together a very different governing coalition than previous presidents. One key component of his coalition was the tech industry writ large. Not just the executives and employees of giants like Google and Facebook, but also the assorted camp followers: wild eyed tech evangelists; smooth talking VCs; cyberlaw professors; open source software enthusiasts; tech policy wonks; big data gurus; NGOs, TED talkers; futurists; cyberspace lawyers; free culture radicals; pirates; cyber libertarians; and assorted cranks.
As a result Obama (like his predecessors Bush and Clinton) took a very neo-liberal approach to the technology industry. Hands-off the tech industry and in exchange the billionaires in Silicon Valley would make everyone’s lives better. Innovation will lift all boats. As someone with classical liberal tendencies I can’t say that this was a wrong decision. At least when you didn’t know then what we know now.
Now it looks stupid. But back then? It gets a pass.
The problem: in short order this part of the Obama coalition coalesced into a lobbying superpower in its own right. A strange mix of anti-establishment lefties, right libertarians, social progressives and lots and lots of corporate money. Google in particular used that money to shape the coalition agenda into a something that perfectly supported its business model. Yet never threatened it. For example, when Barry Lynn a researcher at the Google funded New America Foundation got out of line and praised the EU for fining Google $2.7 billion for violating antitrust laws? New America Foundation fired him for threatening their funding sources. EFF a “digital rights advocacy group” has received millions from Facebook and Google and regularly provides PR and legal cover for these companies. Almost a week passed before they commented on the Cambridge Analytics scandal. Good dog. Very good dog.
Of course this is all very predictable and what we would expect in corporate policy circles.
However a couple years after Susan Crawford made her speech, something radically changed. It started with a bill designed to slow online piracy SOPA. This bill emerged from years of bipartisan wrangling. In EU a trade agreement, ACTA enjoyed similar consensus support. Both were moving towards passage when they were met with what appeared to be fierce grass roots opposition.
In the US the campaign was largely directed by Google lobbyists (Marvin Ammori and Glen Echo Group) and lavishly financed through an opaque non-profit 501 (c) 3 called Fight For The Future. The campaign relied on simple hashtags like “Don’t Break the Internet.” Simple webforms allowed users to share, tweet, email and even phone legislators. Similarly in the EU an online campaign was created to block ACTA. Thousands eventually took to the streets in Poland.
It wouldn’t be an online campaign if there wasn’t also some wild disinformation. And the anti-SOPA campaigners did not disappoint. The most shameful moment was Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain’s “Free Bieber” moment on the Steven Colbert show Dec 1st 2011. Zittrain used Justin Bieber’s breakthrough on YouTube singing covers as his primary example and falsely claimed that Bieber would have gone to jail if SOPA had been law. The problem is that this claim emerged from a website run by Google lobbyist Ammori and had been totally debunked long before Zittrains appearance. Judging by Zittrain’s other comments around the same time it would appear he was aware his claim had been debunked and was specious when he made it.
Unfortunately this kind of disinformation worked. When President Obama came out against the bill on Jan 16th 2012 the bogus “censorship” narrative was in the groundwater. Obama gave it real credence. On the 18th Google and dozens of other websites “blacked out” and provided interactive links that allowed repeated robo calls to congress. The results were predictable. Congress was flooded with unprecedented number of phone calls and emails. Think about it. The most popular website on the planet (Google search) directed all their web traffic at the US Congress with a misleading bit of click bait “Don’t censor the web.” It was essentially a distributed denial of service attack on the legislative branch. And it worked. Jan 20th 2012 the bill was withdrawn.
TAIL WAGS DOG
And that’s when it all changed. The tail discovered it could wag the dog. While the Obama administration may have thought they were being helped with “their” policy by the tech industry, the tech coalition saw it completely differently. They immediately declared themselves sovereign. In 2012 there was no more representative voice of the corporate internet industry than The Net-Coalition. It was basically Google with some grudging support from Amazon and everyone else dragged along at gunpoint. In July 2012 Katie Barr VP of The Glen Echo Group on behalf of the Net-Coalition organized this panel (above) in which they ask the primary question “Is the Internet America’s Third Party?” Among the proposed sub-questions was this gem: “We’ve done a lot of self-congratulating, but what do we do now?”
Fine but…Who’s “we?”
I mean who elected the people who declared themselves “The Internet?” Look at the panel. All but one is a lobbyist. What is this new kind of political entity? Is it really new? We’ve always had lobbyists. If “The Internet” is the thing that got real pissed off about SOPA, it is essentially a lobbyist directed online mob. Is that better than the representative democracy we have now? If we put the online mob in charge of everything won’t it just rename everything Boaty McBoatface? I’m being silly now.
Yet, doesn’t this seem like the scenario Crawford was talking about in the opening quote? The nation state is portrayed as crumbling. A “geeking around” the nation state is proposed with “the internet” (whoever that is) as its “third party” replacement. Sure a weak tea version. A sort of bubbly corporate billboard on the road to Little Dystopia. But when you combine it with the techno-determinism espoused by many of the technology leaders you get something quite nasty. You find yourself on the road to Big Dystopia.
Without repeating 40 pages of my doctoral dissertation, techno-determinism as preached by silicon valley is the notion that technology is an irresistible force that shapes society. We are powerless to even modify the coming innovations and thus we must shape our society, governments, institutions, laws and even our morals to match the technology. As my colleague East Bay Ray noted, techno-determinism is “a form of nihilism” that “demands we modify social norms, longstanding ethical principles and even human rights guarantees to match new technology rather than the other way around.”
As an example. The wave of industrialization in he 19th century led to the employment of children in the mills. Small stature and the ability to get into spaces that full grown men couldn’t made children valuable workers. Essentially a technological determinist would argue we adapt our society and shed our moral outrage at the employment of children. We didn’t. We banned the child labor and innovation progressed along nicely.
But this is no longer the 19th century and techno-determinism has evolved. There is now a pseudo religious quality to techno determinism in Silicon Valley. It comes in two forms. The first is the so-called Singularity. This is a notion that was popularized by the science fiction writer Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is also the chief of engineering for Google. From Wikipedia:
Kurzweil describes his law of accelerating returns which predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. Once the Singularity has been reached, Kurzweil says that machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Afterwards he predicts intelligence will radiate outward from the planet until it saturates the universe. The Singularity is also the point at which machines intelligence and humans would merge.
Kurzwil is not just some outlier Google engineer with some wacky ideas on the side. Google and other Silicon Valley companies fund his Singularity University.
The second form of this pseudo-religious techno-determinism has less of a Millerite quality but is still pernicious. Essentially it posits it is a venal sin to stand in the way of technological innovation because those innovations may produce improvements for humanity down the road. Standing in the way of innovation causes humanity to suffer. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have attempted to enforce my constitutional copyright protections.” This second form permeated the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations and still permeates technology bureaucracies at the federal level under Trump. Again this is a notion that on the surface seems harmless. It sort of jibes with longstanding neo-liberal and classical liberal ideals.
So what is the problem?
“Google is the first imperialist power of the 21st century”- Anonymous comment on Trichordist.
When one combines this pseudo religious techno-determinism, with naked political ambition you get something that I call Internet Imperialism. I’ll explore this more in part II. But Internet Imperialism is the notion that the Internet is outside of the realm of national or even international law. This might have seemed harmless or poorly thought out hippy bullshit when this was first proposed by EFF founder John Perry Barlow in the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. At the time the Internet seemed like undiscovered territory. The internet was a few hobbyists using dial up modems chatting via BBS. What was to be lost if Barlow and his corporate-funded EFF cronies declared it independent?
A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Internet Imperialism can look like harmless hippy bullshit.
Now virtually all human interaction and much of the economy transits the the internet. Internet Imperialism reaches back and pulls large portions of our lives into a system that lacks the consent of the governed. That is a real loss. Do we really want that?
My contention is that internet companies in coordination are aggressively attempting to limit the scope of our democratically elected governments. We are allowing the vast internet-industrial complex to whittle down the authority of our national and even trans-nation institutions by removing much human activity from the scope of governance. We are losing sovereignty, virtual territory to unelected unaccountable private corporations. How are we any different than China in the 19th and early 20th century? Are our national institutions being slowly dismantled without our consent? Tellingly much of the campaigning resembles hybrid information warfare.
The battle lines are clearly defined now:
- Do technology companies and their allies sit at the apex of power and determine what sort of world we live in? The boundaries and limits of our government, our commerce and our liberties defined by their algorithms and business models? Government is simply a janitorial service that cleans up the negative externalities.
- Or do democratic representative institutions sit at that apex?
It’s as if we are undoing the enlightenment. Do we need to dig up John Locke and reanimate him through memes and gifs so folks understand the fundamental importance of the consent of the governed?
Further, whether they consciously intend it or not the internet-industrial complex is undermining western democracies in exactly the same manner that hostile foreign authoritarian governments have attempted to undermine the west for decades. Shouldn’t that freak us all out?
In part two I will explore this further using the corporate campaign against EU Article 13 as the case study. As I will show the anti-article 13 campaign seems specifically designed to block a law by limiting EU authority. Even more disturbing, there is also circumstantial evidence that they pandering to centrifugal forces on the far right/ far left that seek to break the EU apart.
*Correction. A earlier version of this blog implied ACTA was a statute rather than a trade agreement.