Information Flow and Power
Harboured as a political refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012, the Australian founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is the target of a “manhunt timeline” of the National Security Agency (NSA), as confirmed by recent revelations of Edward Snowden. The indictment: having published State Department secrets that WikiLeaks had access to, in the name of a free Internet and free journalism. In the following pages, Assange expresses his views in answer to a questionnaire formulated by ALAI on issues such as globalization and Internet governance; surveillance and public safety; government transparency and accountability, and citizen oversight of the authorities. (ALAI)
- The Internet began its phase of rapid expansion in a global context marked by the “war on terror”, increasing restrictions and violation of human rights, especially privacy, and the intensification of State vigilance. What do you see as the main repercussions of this context on how the Internet is evolving?
- The internet doesn't just represent one trend, but several. The internet, and along with it mass surveillance, has penetrated the core of international human society, giving the US-led “5 eyes” intelligence alliance global surveillance powers over almost every human being and organization. But the global communications regime created by the internet also means that organizing and trading is cheaper, faster and is not subject to classic geographic boundaries. In the past, the challenge for social justice movements has been how to reach consensus and organize efficiently in order to compete with groups that gain organizational coherency from scale and coercion - such as major corporations and governments. In a world where “code is law” the legislative domain is not restricted to governments or their corporate anchors. This is leading, embrionically, to a free market in semi-states: fluid networks of association with control over the state-like features of currency, intelligence gathering, communications and influence.
- Information has always been both a victim and weapon of warfare, but this has increased exponentially in the information society era: manipulation of facts, compliant media campaigns, embedded journalists, media and journalists as targets of attack, etc. But the Internet also offers unprecedented opportunities to counter this manipulation of information, (as Wikileaks itself demonstrated when it broke through the censorship with pictures of the harsh realities of the Afghan and Iraqi wars). How could this perspective be maintained and further developed?
- You could develop this perspective by looking at information flow against a backdrop of power relations.
Information flow is not a neutral phenomenon. It is related to the movement of power through a society. For self-determination - either as a group or as an individual - you need true information. The process of being and becoming free is the process of collectively and individually learning new information about the world and acting on it. The same process is one of the foundations of civilization. In communities, that means we have to be able to communicate among ourselves - to pass on our knowledge and to receive that of others. Information is fundamental to our power position vis-à-vis the world around us. A knowledgeable public is an empowered public is a free public.
Centralized power groups try to act against this. A more free public means a less powerful central authority, and central authorities always seek to keep or grow their power. Power will seek to control or influence information flows in order to consolidate its own power position. It will seek to keep information from the wider community, to a small elite which is then able to organize quickly and outmaneuver others, and it will seek to give the wider community false information, so that when the community attempts to act in its own interest, it falters.
Media are just structured information flows. A medium is a structure over which information flows, normally underpinned by a technology which dictates its properties. Depending on the properties a medium has, it can be more or less democratic in its effects.
In the past, we have had forms of media which favour centralized power - one-to-many types of media, like radio and television, what are called the "mass media" in communications theory. Because they are centralized, they are easy to control and so are easily comprised by other powerful groups. For this reason we say these media are inherently prone to betray their stated purpose.
But there are other forms of media which are likely to be more honest. The internet enables lots of different forms of many-to-many communications. It is harder for powerful groups to control although there are many serious efforts afoot.
There are astroturfing campaigns on the internet, and all kinds of misinformation and disinformation and black propaganda. But these things have always existed. Compared to the internet's empowerment of the community, the advantages for manipulating information it presents are minor. Propagandists are at a disadvantage on the internet.
There are many aspects of the internet that are not sufficiently decentralized - its physical infrastructure for instance. That makes it more vulnerable to bulk surveillance, but does not offer the state much advantage at the level of public relations, propaganda or misinformation. The proof is, NSA has dominance at the level of infrastructure: it can listen to nearly every electronic communication that traverses the internet, but it is losing the PR battle worldwide.
- This context has also seen a new phase of US militarism on the world scene, where cyberwar has become a strategic element of warfare. What do you see as the main threats of this situation for the Internet as a globally interconnected and open infrastructure? What could be done to defend the Internet as an area for peace?
- Instead of thinking about how bad it is for global humanity to weaponize software, the US is escalating a global electronic arms race. The network is complex and it interpenetrates our societies in complex ways. Militarizing such a complex space is reckless. Firewalls for organizations are already here, but firewalls for states are next, as states attempt to enforce some analogue of territorial integrity.
Defending the internet will entail – of course – the creation of a legal framework which is binding on states, and which establishes the internet as an inviolable realm. But states cannot be expected to abide by the law, as we know. So we will also need to redesign the internet, and implement technical reforms (“code is law”). At the basis of this effort will be cryptography. We need encryption from the transport layer up. In the end it will be mathematics that keeps superpowers at bay, just as it was mathematics that permitted their creation via thermonuclear weapon monopolies.
- What do you consider the most relevant aspects of Edward Snowden’s revelations and their repercussions? What are the implications for the future of the Internet? What steps could developing countries take to protect their communications from surveillance?
- The documents Edward Snowden released contain many technical details that are invaluable to software developers, privacy activists and people whose life and safety relies on the integrity and security of their software and hardware – that is where the real value lies for the expert communities that will build the next generation of privacy technology. At WikiLeaks we've been putting our own experience together with information from the documents that have been released to up our game, and our technicians and software developers have been involved in efforts to improve a number of front line technologies, improvements which will in time benefit the general user.
But the most important thing that Mr Snowden has done is move global civilization to the realization that mass surveillance is real. A year ago journalists would not print that the NSA was surveilling the entire internet. Newspapers refused – to their discredit – to dedicate space to the issue. Mr Snowden was far from the first whistleblower from the NSA to tell us this, but he was the one to finally break the camel's back with up-to-date documentary proof authenticated via the scale of the US government man hunt.
The global south must protect their populations from surveillance. In Latin America, almost every connection to the global internet is through fiber-optic cables that run through the United States. This is a sovereignty and economic competition issue. Countries need to form industrial alliances to create alternative physical infrastructure for the internet, so that their communications do not have to traverse the borders of a surveillance predator like the United States, the United Kingdom or its allies. They must also look at hardening their own infrastructure, by regulating the ISP sector so that it is mandated to employ strong bulk encryption over communications links.
Countries that mean to keep their sovereignty should cancel their contracts with US companies, and refuse gifts of subsidized infrastructure and technology from superpowers like China and the United States. They should not use US controlled encryption hardware, because that hardware has a history of being back-doored. They must mandate the use of free (free as in freedom) hardware and software, where the source is open for everyone to examine, and they must financially support developers and development communities in order to nurture a global software commons in safe, secure technology which all countries can use.
They should lead the way, by passing progressive freedom of speech and data protection laws, and discontinue any NSA-like surveillance policies they have in place. Countries that do not invade the privacy of customers will be attractive places for privacy-conscious internet companies that are looking to move away from the United States. The global south can attract companies and grow their internet sectors by differentiating themselves from the injurious practices of the United States and its intelligence allies.
On the international stage, they must seek to develop a consensus to outlaw the use of weapons of mass surveillance against populations. There must be an international framework put in place to bring states to justice over mass surveillance. No country can hope to compete with the US in mass surveillance – due to its geographic position: the “spider in the center” of telecommunications flows – so they must starve it. They must seek to leverage their positions on international committees to influence web standards in the right direction. The US must not be allowed to compromise encryption and communications standards to increase its access. All standards being pushed by the US or its allies must be viewed as suspect. Other countries should pressure the United States and other surveillance powers diplomatically, and seek to bring legal action against those countries for violation of the privacy rights of their own citizens.
- While digital technologies enormously amplify the possibilities of state and corporate surveillance and data collection, as Wikileaks has shown, they can also increase the possibility of citizens’ vigilance over public authorities. What would be your recommendations in terms of legislation and public policy in this matter?
- I founded a broad program of law reform in Iceland in 2009 and 2010, geared for exactly this purpose. It was called the IMMI – the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, and much of it sprang from ideas we had had in the course of our work about the creation of a haven for internet services. It was designed to provide the best protections possible for publishers, honest journalists and internet companies and to kickstart an Icelandic internet sector, attracting investment and innovation. It includes innovative source-protection laws, protection of archives, and laws to repel attempts to wrongfully sue from another jurisdiction. The full proposal is available online (https://immi.is/). All it takes is one small country to implement something resembling the IMMI, and competitive pressure will see internet companies invest in the jurisdiction. Presently no country is seen as the legislative "beacon on the hill" for placing internet services, although the countries that embrace IMMI-style law reforms now will be seen as not only global leaders, but the best place to put a high tech internet company.
- The Internet has shown great potential for broadening access to information and knowledge, and for facilitating democratic participation, transparency, information sharing and public expression. But this is coming under threat, among other things, due to growing corporate control, alongside attempts to legislate restrictively on “piracy” and intellectual property (such as the SOPA and PIPA acts in the US, or negotiation of international agreements such as ACTA or the TPP). What do you consider the most fundamental aspects to address, to avert such threats and ensure that Internet continues to develop as an open public space?
- The most fundamental aspect to address is at the conceptual level. The concept of 'intellectual property' has come upon hard times in recent years, because it is at odds with the idea of an internet. Certain groups established large centres of power before the internet, all based on the concept of 'intellectual property.' Now that concept is becoming harder and harder to maintain, the way a candle slowly loses its cohesion. These fearful lobbies have pushed an explosion of law aimed at seizing control of conduits on the internet, shutting down certain information flows, trying to prevent monopolies on information from dissolving. Those proposals come from the corporate world, but they are welcomed by some governments looking for pretexts to extend controls over the internet.
But the immediate issue is the TPP, and the proposed globalization of restrictive US "intellectual property" law through mutual trade agreements. The TPP countries cover more than 40% of global GDP. Its geopolitical intent is a US dominated “trade” block to ring China. For example, Ecuador, as a Pacific Rim country, is not yet a party to the TPP, but the effect of that treaty, if passed, will be to effectively copperfasten the radical US interpretation of IP law as a norm in that hemisphere. Ecuador – as a country that has yet to fully embrace the internet – has much to lose by being locked into a legal framework that provides commercial advantages to US incumbents. If the TPP gets through, the same interests will attempt to use that momentum to push those norms into Europe too, through the US-EU counterpart – the TTIP. The traditional IP issues – the lockdown of culture, medicine and other items that are essential to human flourishing – are not the only possible ramifications of this. Expect to see IP law increasingly abused outside of that remit to challenge internet sovereignty for Latin America and the Asian Pacific coast too. We released a recent draft of the Intellectual Property chapter of the TPP last October, and this has had a galvanizing influence on opposition to the TPP. It has already been slowed down on its way through the legislature in the US. Besides activism on surveillance of the network and producing “code is law” alternatives, making sure that treaty is defeated is the most effective use of energy and effort at this time.
- Julian Assange is Editor in Chief of WikiLeaks.
* This article is part of edition No. 494 of ALAI’s (Spanish language) magazine “América Latina en Movimiento”, special English language digital edition http://www.alainet.org/publica/494-en.phtml, titled: “Internet, power and democracy”.
 Ed. The “5 eyes” Alliance is a joint surveillance program of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The latest revelations from Snowden documents disclose explicit proposals within this group to exploit Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks as secret platforms for propaganda, with the aim of “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).”(Source: The Intercept).
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