Is It Necessary to Defend a
Free and Open Internet?
Reflections on today’s most widely
used alternative media
The outrage orchestrated by a
number of mainstream media and by politicians, above all in the U.S., in
the wake of the publication of thousands of cables by Wikileaks has once
again unleashed a conflictual debate about the internet.
Do we have to reflect, once more,
on its use, its potential, its dangers and the hopes that are, by now,
attached to it? The answer to this question should be yes, I think. Why?
First of all, because of what appears, to various critics, as its
ambiguous or janus-headed nature. Like the press, it can serve or obstruct
self-empowerment of those who are, today, largely disempowered: ordinary
people. The populace. Hard-working citizens. The unemployed, the abysmally
poor, the homeless, Illegalized immigrants. The wretched of the earth.
Beginning with the homeless Vietnam war veteran sleeping on the sidewalk
in downtown Milwaukee. And including flood victims in Pakistan or Bangla
Desh. Or victims of foreign armed robbery of the nation’s riches in the
D.R.Congo. Starving kids in Haiti or Honduras. Peasants brutalized
and killed by paramilitary death squads or the army, in Colombia.
The internet, as we all know
or should know, was developed by, or on behalf of, the Pentagon. It is
a fantastic instrument of surveillance. It allows today’s
government agencies to engage
in eavesdropping as never before. It is amd always
was burdensome to track and
open letters of dissidents, of critics of government policies, so they
don’t notice. You can hurt your fingers by relying on hot steam. It takes
time, and it needs lots of personnel as soon as large quantities have to
be handled. If you keep paper records, it is difficult to find stored information
once you need it. The eavesdropping agencies in the old days were bound
to drown in the sheer mass of material they collected. It gave a breathing
space, a bit of leeway to dissidents in contemporary societies with a large,
bureaucratic state apparatus. At least as long as you weren’t very much
in the limelight, at the center of attention, so to speak.
Today, it is easy to electronically
track and record all communication by all citizens. Using key words, you
can filter the mass of communication in real time.
You can store, in separate,
highlighted files, info on those citizens who came to your attention, once
or repeatedly, by using this and/or that term. And then you can check their
entire communication more thoroughly. Knowing their e-mail contacts, their
facebook or twitter contacts, you, as personnel of the government’s
eavesdropping agency, find out how transparent, for you, their social networks
are. In addition to the records that name their blood relatives and that
are kept by the city administration, you know their business partners,
their social contacts, the members of social or political groups they communicate
And you know or might know a
good deal about their feelings and thoughts about this and that: love and
sorrow, life and death, society and politics. If they communicate, by phone
or e-mail, chat, facebook or twitter message, about any of this.
You find out whether they complain about health problems. Whether they
are well-off or just make it or are broke.
This is true of every (or almost
every?) government, and they all have eavesdropping agencies. The amount
they collect may vary. What was described above is what is possible. The
more hysterical they are, the more they collect. If they feel threatened,
if they feel popular dissatisfaction and resistance to a few or the bulk
of their measures growing, they collect quite a lot. Often, certain segments
of the populations are especially targeted. In North America and in much
of Europe, it’s ecologists, grass-roots activists, and the young, libertarian
kids who dream of “autonomy” and resent “boxes, little boxes” (as the song
by Pete Seeger went). And let’s not forget Black American militants, spokespersons
for the cause of Native Americans, defenders of the rights of Latinos,
of “Chicanos,” of “illegal immigrants.” Of course, peaceniks,
anti-nuclear activists, the old and new left, the more outspoken trade
unionists and organizers of workers’ resistance, quite a few individual
anarchists and hippies were and still are in the focus of authorities and
viewed with suspicion, too. And increasingly, it is also the 50-year-old
engineer, the old lady in her elegant dress, the shopkeeper from across
the street who are not trusted any more. When they show signs of distrusting
the State and its inquisitive nature. When they are shocked by “elites”
that have recourse to the most blatant lies, or are involved in graft.
So it is easy to identify the
downside of electronic communication associated above all with the internet:
with a technical infrastucture, that is, that allows easy one-to-one or
one-to-many communication of millions, a communication that is easily subject
to the most effective and comprehensive surveillance by the State that
we know in modern and pre-modern history.
It is clear that in case a government,
a section of the political and economic “elites” or a part of the military
wanted to carry out a coup d’état and was bent on establishing an
openly repressive system, it would be easy for them to rely on previously
drawn up lists of “subversives,” “suspects,” “dissidents,” “potential troublemakers”
and “social activists.” It would be easy to round them up and put them
in detention camps. It would be easy to know in advance who could flee
to and find shelter with whom, and who had what contacts, and knew which
You think that can’t happen here?
That it is a Greek or Chilean scenario? You think that only “people who
deserve it” would be targeted? “Radicals” you don’t mind being rounded
up? You wouldn’t care about, even, if they got killed?
But just remember this detail
perhaps. John Lennon was watched by the FBI. They had a file or files on
him. He knew they wouldn’t let him enter the United States again should
he fly home to Britain. When he was murdered, his wife, Yoko Ono, cried
out, “They have killed him.” They, not: He has killed him. What did she
mean – they? Was it paranoia? The effect of suffering permanently their
obsessive surveillance? Their? Who are they? The freely elected government
of the UNITED STATES that didn’t trust a Beatle: He was dangerous. He sang,
“Love, love, love.” And “Give peace a chance.” At the time of the war in
Vietnam, his influence on millions of young people was apparently greater
than that of the Old and New Left which reached students, professors, writers,
artists, but not necessarily the daughter or son of a redneck. Or so Mr.
Hoover, or a few other guys far up in the hierarchy (and, more or less,
of his calibre) must have thought.
There are those who wonder who
told Bob Dylan to switch away from political or protest songs because it
was risky. His agent? CBS? A guy in a trenchcoat who visited him and gave
him a stern warning? Dylan is a great poet and singer-songwriter, but that
kind of – no – not U-turn, at that moment in history makes you marvel
what happened. Perhaps his innate sense of what was necessary if he wanted
to continue let him search for, and find, another way to get across his
message. Less overtly political.
There are also those who wonder
about the death of Jean Seberg, Martin Luther King, Lee Harvey Oswald,
Jack Ruby – and of course, JFK. The Bulgarian secret service is said to
have used poisoned umbrellas. The mafia preferred people hanging under
a London bridge. In Sweden, in the U.S., it is customary to present a deranged
person. Somebody with some sort of record, easily obliged to go along and
perform a dirty job, before he is let down himself. Somebody no judge will
believe. Maybe, there are those deranged guys who do not even have to carry
out the dirty job. It suffices that they are easily presented as the “usual
suspect” and cannot stand the pressure brought to bear on them. Helpless,
confused people with this or that problem. Criminals, even petty criminals,
shady people rooted in a shady ‘milieu’ which become pawns in the hand
of police officers or secret service personnel. Those who direct the game
are located further up in the state hierarchy.
A stupid hypthesis? Maybe. Proven
The core element of what I’m
saying is, You’d be surprised who was spied on by the land of the free
and home of the brave. John Lennon, yes. The files released under the freedom
of information act prove it. Buffy Sainte Marie? Yes, she has seen records
sent by U.S. authorities, even to DJs in Canada, that asked them not to
play her music. Most complied, it seems. The U.S. postal services held
up her records when she performed in a college or music joint and wanted
to sell records there because stores wouldn’t sell them any longer. What
do you think happened to American Indian activists? To Black civil rights
activists? You didn’t have to be Pete Seeger and be affiliated, of sorts,
to the Left in order to be blacklisted and suffer wiretapping and other
activities worthy of a dictatorial regime.
So, I’m saying: That’s the past.
The present and immediate future are worse. The technical or “technological”
instruments of surveillance by a largely out-of-control and, somehow, paranoid
state machinery are more effective than ever. Thanks to the Pentagon-produced
internet. The old-style leftist or libertarian or San Francisco poet suspected
of anarchist Buddhism could notice the guy following him. He heard the
suspicious crackling noise when the wiretapping of his phone conversation
set in. The new surveillance is silent, invisible, in many respects. To
the extent it is carried out on the internet, it is only noticed when we
comes across records kept by agencies, records that partially come to light,
say, in the context of a trial. Or when the thing is discussed by lawmakers
who think it is going too far. And when, as a consequence, the government
is forced to admit it engaged in across the board wiretapping of ordinary
citizens without court orders, without the slightest bit of a reason, without
any suspicion of actual wrong-doing. Which is usually the moment when they
try to make it legal, post festum, and offer consolation to ‘liberals’
in Congress by toning down the most objectionable provisions of such a
suggested law, in order to make its adoption more likely.
A bleak picture, right? Orwell’s
fears and anticipations have been surpassed by reality but we don’t feel
any palpable effects. Because so much of it remains invisible. Preventive.
Storage of information about millions of people, just in case. Profiling.
Storing iris scans, finger prints of millions. Developing machinery that
can identify people by their smell, and storing items carrying their smell.
Developing machinery that is smart enough to handle “recognition” of a
face, its features, regardless of how you change your hairdo, grow or shave
your mustache, take on weight or lose it, grow old, look this way or that.
Smile or laugh or cry, or look serious or bored.
Ah, it’s about terrorism, you
say? Yes, but forget about Al Quaida. The terrorist these surveillance
freaks are preventively thinking of is you. Terrorism can be defined very
broadly: perhaps, when that young lady, Julia, was sitting high up in a
redwood tree in Oregon, obstructing the work of Pacific Lumber Corp., she
was profiled as an eco-terrorist. In the 1890s, the Japanese Imperial Government
described the first Japanese longshoremen that organized, encouraged by
American unionized sailors, as “terrorists.” And Nelson Mandela was blacklisted
by the U.S. government almost up to his 80th birthday or so, as a “terrorist”
and member of a “terrorist organization,” the ANC. They would have denied
him entry to the United States, had he wanted to visit the country. Of
course the death squads of the Apartheid regime never were considered terrorists.
The Apartheid regime was a U.S. allies, and the secret services of allied
and mutually “friendly” countries, including their killer teams, usually
entertain the best “professional relations.”
So that is the downside of technical
progress in the field of surveillance, and the internet is a key component
of it. But, given that it is possible to talk of the janus-headed nature
of the internet, what is its positive side?
I think it is above all the possibility,
or let’s more correctly say, the greatly increased possibility of ordinary
people, and especially socially and politically awake and concerned and
critical people, to link, to form networks, to exchange ideas which means
to debate issues more easily and perhaps in a more open, inspired manner.
The internet, no doubt, has also become an antidote, a corrective that
counteracts rampant infotainment and the dull, homogenous, often soothing
and downplaying, in one word conformist rather than investigative “reporting”
typical, with few exceptions, of the mainstream media.
It is apparent that many if not
most newspapers and journals today are dull, shy away from investigative
journalism and echo the interested views of the top echolons of the classe
politique and the world of financial and other corporations.
There are clear and very apparent
reasons for this:
Journalists are breadwinners.
They don’t particularly like being fired. (There are exceptions to the
rule.) Not wanting to be fired makes them toe the “line” spelled out clearly
and distinctly, or instinctively recognized by anybody who wants to “survive”
in the profession. The “editorial line” to be followed is watched over
by the editor-in-chief, and he harkens to the wishes of the paper’s owners
and major advertising clients.
All this was already true when
newspapers were still local and boasting that they were independent. Today
it is far worse, however. The widely distributed, widely read and, in this
respect, important print media are operated by corporations the top level
management of which is obliged to have certain interests at heart:
their own, as well-paid and bonus-earning managers, and above all, those
of the (major) owners. And this regardless of whether these owners are
dynasties of old-fashioned newspaper czars (Murdoch and the likes of him),
or major shareholders. The consequence is that even within the compulsory
framework of tendentious reporting that brings a semblance of “diversity”
into the dull mainstream picture of the U.S. press, the kind of idiosyncratic
individualism that Mark Twain still found possible in the 19th century,
has become extinct. Schools of journalism have added to this turn toward
media entropy that foreshadows the death of the printed press, because
in the end everybody will be too bored to continue buying and reading newspapers.
As for television, the inanity and imbecility it has chosen to opt for
as a growth strategy have brought it temporary success. But the facile
glamor and stupid action coupled with so-called suspense is wearing off.
And it is doubtful that they can come up with something new. Even the “terrorism”
hype is looked through and demasked by more and more average citizens in
the U.S. and other countries in the West. Outside it, skepticism in this
regard is even more outspoken.
So there is one major reason
why many ordinary people, and not just the young, search independently
for alternative sources of information on the internet. This implies a
great step towards democratic responsibility for one’s local community
and society at large, and also with regard to the planet and all those
who inhabit it.
Only a well-informed person
can reach conclusions rationally and base his political preferences and
immediate as well as long term goals on reason, in addition to basing is
on ethics. Both, reason and ethics, are in fact complementary. Unreasonable
acts can hardly be termed ethical. If ethical goals, for instance justice
for all and respect for the basic needs of all, are to be reached, a rational
practice or way of proceeding is required.
The internet has in fact become,
for those who are learning to use it rationally and creatively, a source
of good, in-depth information and a platform where various, substantive,
earnestly outlined interpretations of certain aspects of social and political
and economic and of course, cultural phenomena are offered, which challenges
us to debate issues and also different views regarding certain issues.
Or at least, to follow debates and weigh pros and cons (to put it a bit
simply) in our own mind. Such (maximum or minimal) involvement is a prerequisite
if we, as concerned citizens, want to decide and act in an informed way.
Alternative media are important
for the defense and deepening and widening of democracy. Of, in other
words, the real democratic process which must be comprehended as an infinished
and open-ended process. And this is so BECAUSE MAINSTREAM MEDIA, today
in a few hands and tied to the vested interests of the few, fail to fulfill
the democratic function once ascribed to and expected of them. Mainstream
media, today, fail to fulfill that once expected function to the extent
that these media are too closely tied to corporate interests and loyal
to a political “classe” which is, itself, to a greater or lesser extent,
a representative of the “prevailing logic of things.” That is to say, these
media and the social forces they represent have become an expression of
a flexible status quo that is getting worse and worse, moving more and
more in the direction of a post-democratic society, while conjuring
up, mantra-like, the “necessity not to rock the boat and hurt the economy.”
BUT respect, instead, the overwhelming interests of big corporations, and
therefore the “logic of the market” dominated by these MNCs. And this in
oligopolistic fashion, in the case of big oil, big pharma, major utilities,
arms-makers, makers of civilian and military planes, etc.
It is clear that we must defend
and encourage those who use the internet rationally and democratically
for the purpose of discovering alternative sources of information, for
involvement in autonomous, rational debate, and – if necessary – for the
purpose of autonomously organizing resistance, whether to inactivity of
governments in the face of climate change, or in opposition to continuing
world hunger and commodity speculation driving up the price of rice, corn,
soybeans, wheat etc.(to name just a few issues, and there are many that
are local or regional, if we think of resistance to chemical fracturing
or “fracking,” as witnessed by the popular movement that forced legislators
recently to act, in the state of New York…).
It is clear that the dangers
of surveillance and “preventive” DATA COLLECTION ON ORDINARY CITIZENS exist
and are not only very real but meant to intimidate us,
But in the end, with the present
democracy movement that is picking up speed on a woldwide scale, flourishing
and becoming an irrepressible force, the State and its repressive machinery
will in due time turn out to be a dinosaur, a pale and finally ridiculous
entity, a spectre that does not haunt anybody anymore.
The road will be hard perhaps
at times, but the strength of those who embrace the self-determination,
self-emancipation and empowerment of the people, of the ordinary citizens
of the world, is rooted in the awareness that the disempoweed, disenchanted,
cheated and lied-to populace is the majority, a vast majority of 80, of
90, of perhaps 99 per cent, in countries like the U.S.
And the vested interests of
the few, that tiny majority which still profits from the flexible status-quo
which the so-called political elite defends on their behalf, are bound
to give way, just as the vested interests of feudal lords and absolutist
princes gave way, in the past.
Democracy real YA!
Democracia real YA!
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