Wikileaks Exposes Internet's Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy

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Jaron Lanier's recent lengthy essay about Wikileaks is not really about Wikileaks; thus, it is unsurprising that he misses the central lesson of this affair. From the beginning, he makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations; he then takes off on a dystopic vision of a world dominated by an imagined "nerd supremacist" ethic of complete transparency, collapse of private life, and unrestricted information flow, in which humanity is the slave of the machine.

Horrifying as this vision is, it simply distracts from the main lessons of the Wikileaks affair: the increasing control of (relatively) unaccountable corporations and states over the key components of the Internet, and their increased willingness to use this control in politicized ways to impose a "dissent tax" on content they find objectionable. Ability to disseminate one's ideas on the Internet is now a sine qua non of inclusion in the global public sphere. However, the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a "quasi-public sphere," where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent.

When Lanier says that privacy "is not about anachronistic prohibitions on information flow, but about personhood" and "that everyone has a right to keep a private sphere private," as a scholar of privacy and the Internet, I wholeheartedly agree; I have written about this many times. However, Lanier then argues this right on behalf of institutions and governments, claiming that endeavors like Wikileaks are akin to social networking sites in destroying privacy, thus impeding the development of "personhood." He presents Wikileaks as a harmful example of the "nerd ideology" that is exposing us all, to the detriment of us all.

Lanier thus conflates the right to privacy of persons with the privilege of non-disclosure that states may sometimes exercise. Raising personhood in this context is irrelevant and dangerous. Misguided legal fictions aside, states and corporations are not persons and should not enjoy the considerations, such as an inherent right to privacy. On the contrary, they are subject to the people's right to transparent and accountable governance. Institutions, may, under certain conditions, exercise a privilege not to disclose particular kinds of information to the general public, but then only with justification. Any implied equation of these powerful institutional agents with humans made up of flesh, vulnerability is both morally and analytically suspect.. A "fair" fight between non-equals is not fair, and being blind to power is an implicit endorsement of the powerful.

Further, while one may disagree with the particular methods chosen by Wikileaks--and I certainly have my criticisms--the suggestion that we live in a world in which states and individuals have both become too transparent makes me wonder if Lanier is writing about not this reality, but one of the virtual ones he helped pioneer. It seems to me that states (and corporations) have become increasingly secretive and opaque, while people are increasingly exposed. This divergence was lampooned quite effectively by Saturday Night Live. "I give you private information about corporations for free," SNL's Assange quipped, "And I'm a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's the Man of the Year."

Much of Lanier's piece revolves around "nerd ideology," a topic of much concern to him; indeed, it is the subject of his last book, "You Are Not a Gadget." I'm sympathetic to much of what he has to say about this. I agree that there is sometimes almost a fetishization of information for its own sake. In my talk about Wikileaks at the Personal Democracy Forum recently, I emphasized that we should not see information by itself as a change agent and that a glut of information, especially without context and political leverage, may not result in meaningful change. That, however, is not an argument for less information.

I also share Lanier's distaste for the "Internet is coming alive as a new, singular, global, post-human, superior life form ...  a global brain" discourse, again much discussed in his book. Lanier apparently sees "Anonymous," the loosely-affiliated groups of individuals that are associated with the distributed denial-of-service attacks against corporations that targeted Wikileaks, as subscribers to the "global brain" idea. Fine, down with the global brain.

But how is this in any way but the most tangential connected to Wikileaks? First, neither Julian Assange nor Wikileaks is associated with Anonymous. His few public statements on this issue have been to distance his organization from them. Second, is Anonymous' campaign--a few, relatively unsuccessful, virtual protests by a group most estimate to be mostly composed of teenagers--really the main thing Lanier sees when he looks at what this whole affair has shown us about the Internet? It is one thing to be personally concerned about nerd ideology, it is quite another to see nerd ideology everywhere to the exclusion of all else .

During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech--it's just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere "quasi-public sphere," the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private.  If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power.

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So, no, I fail to be moved by Lanier's horror of  "Anonymous," apparently the epitome of nerd ideology, whose most fearsome member charged to-date with Wikileaks-related attacks is a 16-year-old Dutch kid. Anonymous' support for Wikileaks hardly makes Wikileaks a leading proponent of nerd ideology by association any more than Wikileaks is Kevin Bacon, but Lanier wants to write about Nerd Ideology. The actions by Anonymous were barely the equivalent of virtual sit-ins, and had very little effect. Jaron Lanier should know better how to judge the true impact of these small-scale DDoS attacks, regardless of the brief media hysteria.

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Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She writes regularly at Technosociology.

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