Jean Dobers

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 with. 

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 like-minded people.

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 facts? No. 
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!

Manifesto of Democracia real YA!

backup  copy

backup copy

Mavroulis Argyros on the general strike 
(in:, Oct.20, 2011)

backup copy


Occupy Wall Street

We Are Change

Chomskyon decentralized solidarity movements

Z Communications  AND Z mag

Left Forum

Local to

Nathan Schneider, "From Occupy 
Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere"
(The Nation, Oct. 31, 2011)


Deutschsprachige Web-Seiten

K21 (Stuttgart)

backup copy

"people of the world, rise up"
Aufruf von K21 zur Demo am 15.Okt.
(backup copy)

backup copy

Attac Deutschland

attac Aufruf zur Demo am 15.Okt.2011

backup copy


Students in Chile are protesting 
(xinhua net, Oct.20, 2011)

backup copy


Al Ahram Weekly

Galal Nassar, "The Arab Spring and the crisis of the elite" 

backup copy


Mohamed Azouz, Egypt govt mulls 
raising workers' incentives in bid to thwart labor strikes 

Ahmad Fouad Najem, "Forbidden"

backup copy


The Nation

Kucinich, Speech before U.S. Congress, March 31, 2011
(The Nation; April 4, 2011)

backup copy


Tom Hayden, "The Defunding 
of the Peace Movement" 

backup copy

Not in our name

backup copy

disarm now

"Former US Attorney General Testifies for Plowshares Activists"

backup copy

Justice with Peace
(United for Justice with Peace Coalition)


Support Julian Assange

Forum Social Mundial
Retos anticapitalistas

backup copy



                                                                                                 go back to URBAN DEMOCRACY issue  # 7