Wednesday, December 22, 2010

8-Bit Wonder

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released its holiday e-card, which it describes as its 2010 "Year in Review" done in eight-bit game graphics style. Its three levels include "EFF vs. The Copyright Troll," "Free Your Phone," and "Save Your Privacy."

In reality, with the complexities of 2010 for Internet freedom advocates forced to think hard about WikiLeaks and the war on diplomacy that it represents, they really might be playing this Obama vs. Assange online game.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Of Whistle-Blowers and Figureheads

This week the face of Mark Zuckerberg is beginning to grace newsstands on the TIME cover for the 2010 Person of the Year. Yet many have questioned the choice of someone with relatively little policy influence, even if the supporting article describes Zuckerberg being visited by FBI chief Mueller in his Silicon Valley offices.

In particular, supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julia Assange are deluging the news magazine's website with complaints that their hero (or anti-hero), the infamous high-profile Australian-born whistle-blower known for leaking diplomatic cables from the U.S. government, is being snubbed by the mainstream press.

To TIME's credit, they did grant Assange the honor of being a chief "runner-up" to Zuckerberg's coverboy status. However, in the article that acknowledges Assange's influence, the introductory rhetoric is striking.

On Dec. 9, 2006, an unsolicited e-mail arrived for Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower of Vietnam War renown. The return address said only "WikiLeaks," and the signature at bottom, "WL." In the orotund prose of a manifesto, the message invited Ellsberg to become the public face of a project "to place a new star in the firmament of man." Ellsberg knew nothing of the group, which had yet to make its debut. Nor had he heard of its leader, a then 35-year-old Australian named Julian Assange, best known in his own circles as a teenage hacker turned "cypherpunk" — a prolific coder with visions of technology as a tool for political change.

The audacity of the e-mail kept Ellsberg reading. WikiLeaks aimed at nothing less than the decline and fall of oppression by organized exposure of its secrets. "Governance by conspiracy and fear," the author wrote, depended on concealment. "We have come to the conclusion that fomenting a world wide movement of mass leaking is the most cost effective political intervention." So fanciful did the proposal appear that Ellsberg saw only two ways to read it, he told TIME: as either "a little ploy by the CIA or NSA to draw in leaks" or "a very naive venture to think that they can really get away with it." Ellsberg made no reply.

The reader of TIME meets Assange as a stealthy and anonymous e-mail writer meriting some screen attention but no reply. In contrast, Zuckerberg is introduced as a corporate CEO leading a large meeting. In the Zuckerberg article we are told that his success and that of his company Facebook represents the fact that both the Sixties and the anonymous and subversive hacker ethic that supposedly grew out of that decade are over and that Internet culture has moved on to embrace bourgeois values and corporate consumerism. In contrast, the Assange piece begins with a quintessential Vietnam-era whistle-blower and his introduction to his cyberpunk hacker successor.

Not the least of Assange's achievements is a technological one. WikiLeaks brought to life what one of its early advisers described as "a recurring idea in hacker culture — a digital safe haven that is anonymous, massively collaborative and highly resistant to attack or penetration by intelligence services." Redundant hardware and Web servers span international borders. Participants in its design say WikiLeaks has made novel use of an alphabet soup of existing geek tools, such as mutually anonymous file sharing, decoy ciphering to flood eavesdroppers with empty data, and encryption of files in transit and in storage.

Although Assange and WikiLeaks are all over the newspapers, not a lot has been printed about WikiLeaks in the academic literature yet, since publishing cycles at university presses often lag far behind current events. I wrote about WikiLeaks in the chapter on whistle-blowers in the Virtualpolitik book, and for a long time since then I have argued that the dialectic between the disembodied evidence of a site like WikiLeaks and the embodied testimony of the eyewitness, epitomized by Witness, both function in Internet discourses about human rights, global justice, and civil society in the transnational domains of cyberspace.

Other websites obscure the ethos of the whistle-blower to protect the anonymity of sources that provide whistle-blowing documents and emphasize collective intelligence over individual credibility. However, the multiple authorship structure that such sites often deploy poses risks in representing a number of personal agendas and rhetorical motivations simultaneously. Furthermore, online disclosure of some kinds of whistleblowing documents—such as the contents of secret police files from the Stasi in the former East Germany—is not considered to be feasible because of significant privacy concerns about disclosure; victims or unrelated parties could have highly confidential personal information revealed on the Internet.

For example, the website Wikileaks was temporarily closed down by a judge’s order after it published records that seemed to indicate that a bank in the Cayman Islands was involved in possible tax evasion and money laundering. A representative from the bank complained to the news media of possible “harm from the widespread dissemination of private and confidential banking information, including account numbers, personal identification numbers, account transactions and history, and account balances,” which could cause “identity theft and electronic theft of account balances” after a “disgruntled employee” posted the documents.35 However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was ultimately successful in a legal challenge to the judge’s shutdown of the entire site via the internet service provider that was hosting the domain, which an editorial in the New York Times compared to “shutting down a newspaper because of objections to one article.”36 Other documents on the multilingual and multinational Wikileaks site include official information about U.S. federal guidelines for the treatment of detainees in terrorism cases, materials about corruption in Kenya and Bermuda, and the numbering systems used for NATO equipment. 37 The site interface used the familiar tabs of “article,” “discussion,” and “history” from Wikipedia, along with a tab for “view source.”

Soon after Wikileaks was launched in December 2006, it inspired a watchdog group
that often wrote critically about the site and the hundreds of thousands of documents
that it published online. characterized itself as a “discussion blog about
the ethical and technical issues” of the Wikileaks project. This site apparently maintained a certain amount of critical distance from its object of study, because it described itself as “not yet affiliated with the secretive and media manipulative” wiki for “mass document leaking.”38 However, during the legal troubles that Wikileaks faced and its highly publicized forced blackout in the United States, the once-critical blog listed the domain names of mirror sites for the whistle-blowing original to help visitors find documents, relevant articles, and position papers that the had site made available.

Since writing these paragraphs for a book that appeared in May 2009, obviously a lot has changed in the public profile of WikiLeaks. A visit to the site shows Assange's face on the banner, while before its masthead emphasized the site's lack of a figurehead. Then again, we now see Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wale's visage pleading for support on almost entry we open. Compare Wale's upturned face and hopeful expression to Assange's conspiratorial gaze.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 20, 2010

About Time

The selection of the TIME Person of the Year always marks an interesting cultural moment. In my 2006 summary of the year in digital rhetoric I opened my annual video with the TIME cover with the mirrored page that announced that the person of the year was "You." The subtitle explained that Web 2.0 was to be a new era of second-person culture: "Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world."

This year the TIME cover offers not a reflection of the reader's face but a youthful blue-eyed visage with freckles, stubble, with shine under his eyes. The 2006 cover made some sense in light of the 2006 elections in which social media shaped results in both the House and the Senate. In 2010 the only newsworthy event tied to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the debut of the film The Social Network. One might argue that this is really a story about cinema not the World Wide Web, as a particular film gears up for the Oscar race.

Indeed, much of the article about Zuckerberg that serves as the cover story for the TIME issue
is devoted to differences between fact and fiction in relationship to the David Fincher film. Apparently Zuckerberg is warm and well-liked, didn't have to struggle to get the girl of his dreams, and never drank appletinis.

The reality is that Zuckerberg isn't alienated, and he isn't a loner. He's the opposite. He's spent his whole life in tight, supportive, intensely connected social environments: first in the bosom of the Zuckerberg family, then in the dorms at Harvard and now at Facebook, where his best friends are his staff, there are no offices and work is awesome. Zuckerberg loves being around people. He didn't build Facebook so he could have a social life like the rest of us. He built it because he wanted the rest of us to have his.

The claim for Zuckerberg's historical significance has to do with TIME book reviewer Lev Grossman's argument that Zuckerberg is undoing the nineteen-sixties and the Internet that it created. (Some familiar with the marketing of print books may remember that Grossman's book The Magicians was hawked by its publisher with a free stand-alone first chapter.)

Facebook is the realization of a dream. but it's also the death of a dream, one that began in the late 1960s. That's when the architecture of the Internet was first laid out, and it's a period piece. The Internet is designed the way it is to accommodate any number of practical considerations, but it's also an expression of 1960s counterculture. No single computer runs the network. No one is in charge. It's a paradise of equality and anonymity, an electronic commune.

In the 1970s the communes faded away, but the Internet only grew, and that countercultural attitude lingered. The presiding myth of the Internet through the 1980s and 1990s was that when you went online, you could shed your earthly baggage and be whoever you wanted. Your age, your gender, your race, your job, your marriage, where you lived, where you went to school — all that fell away. In effect, the social experiments of the 1960s were restaged online. Log on, tune in, drop out.

We all know how that ended. When the Web arrived in the early 1990s, it went mainstream. The number of people on the Internet exploded, from 2.6 million in 1990 to 385 million in 2000, and we messed up the scene. The equality and anonymity that made the Internet so liberating in its early days turned out to be disastrously disinhibiting. They made the Internet a haven for pornographers and hatemongers and a free-for-all for scammers, hackers and virus writers.
. . .
It grew because it gave people something they wanted. All that stuff that the Internet enabled you to leave behind, all the trappings of ordinary bourgeois existence — your job, your family, your background? On Facebook, you take it with you. It's who you are.

Zuckerberg has retrofitted the Internet's idealistic 1960s-era infrastructure with a more pragmatic millennial sensibility. Anonymity may allow people to reveal their true selves, but maybe our true selves aren't our best selves. Facebook makes cyberspace more like the real world: dull but civilized. The masked-ball period of the Internet is ending. Where people led double lives, real and virtual, now they lead single ones again.

The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight, as basic and era-defining in its way as Jobs' realization that people prefer a graphical desktop to a command line or pretty computers to boring beige ones.

Here Grossman tells a familiar story about the relationship of the Internet to counter-culture, one considerably less complex than the one told by Manuel Castells that involves "the techno-meritocratic culture," "the hacker culture," "the virtual communitarian culture," and "the entrepreneurial culture" and the sometimes volatile “intersection of big science, military research, and libertarian culture" and its amalgams of identity positions.

Grossman's narrative about the potential twin threats to privacy and the public good posed by Facebook also lacks the deep thinking of Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything about the social web and its corporate ideology.

Finally, the assertion that Facebook is a juggernaut headed for global dominance ignores the phenomenon of individual national social networks and fragmented social and linguistic spaces that Geert Lovink has described.

Grossman offers a diverting account of Zuckerberg the polymath empath but his assertion that Zuckerberg is reshaping the architecture of the Internet just isn't true. Particularly at a time when a number of policy issues are at stake that require forms of civic education and collective deliberation about the social web, we don't need more great-man histories. Instead, understanding complex issues like IP address shortages, threats to network neutrality, the new domestic spaces of ubiquitous computing, and our place as humans in the Internet of things will take more than a hagiography for TIME's Person of the Year in 2010.

Labels: ,