Friday, August 12, 2011

Austerity, unrest and technology

Here is a far-out premise. I could be wrong about this, but I think the recent push to stigmatize, maybe criminalize, anonymity, is correlated, maybe caused outright, maybe just co-occuring with the rioting and anger around the rethinking of the role of government in society.

As reported in several Real News stories, the push for austerity in many countries around the world is motivated by a desire to dismantle social safety nets and go back to 1890s-style capitalism. I believe it was James Crotty who said on the Real News, "They want the 1890s." After, or in conjunction with the push to cut back on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the U.S., I think there may be pushes to cut other programs that improve peoples' lives and protect them against sickness or death. Food safety? Civil rights? Worker safety? The 1890s were very different from the 2010s. Federal minimum wage? Child labor? Work hour limits and overtime rules?

I don't know what the limits will be, but I think some of these things are going to quickly come out of the realm of satire and become something that the right wants to cut or destroy altogether. As seen in the debt ceiling fight, some Republicans in Congress have a perverse, upside down view of destruction and are willing to use it in blackmail. I wrote a comment on Bloggingheads after noticing this clip where Michelle Goldberg mentions that some in the House GOP believe that within the bounds of some sort of christian anointedness, destruction would be a sort of "Jubilee year", where I guess something they like better would rise out of the ashes like a phoenix. So they are willing to screw over the wellbeing of a lot of people through fast, radical change.

I don't know if the lawmakers and bankers around Europe also have this evangelical christian motivation, but austerity is being adopted in many countries. The Real News reported on the agreement adopted at the G20 in Toronto in 2010, where member countries agreed to hit certain budget targets by certain dates.

In various places around the world, people are getting angry about these cuts. Even if the London riots did not have an explicitly political focus, I see it partially as the product of austerity getting down into peoples' bones. If someone else wants to condemn rioters doing violence and property damage, I don't disagree with that. I would listen to both views- the liberal view that it makes sense to look at root causes of crime, and the law-and-order view that you don't do that. You just say no, deploy police, enforce the law, catch criminals and try, convict and punish them.

Now the third motif is technology. I don't have any evidence that governments are *asking* technology companies to do anything. But I have some precedents. The NSA asked AT&T and other telcos for their cooperation in warrantless spying, and AT&T and other telcos said yes. (Maybe Qwest said no, but from what I understand, they were not especially heroic.)

Another precedent comes from this Frontline, Spying on the Home Front. Basically, the power that the U.S. government has, and exercises when it feels the need, is to do something I would call micronationalization. We have negative connotations around the idea of a massive "Big Brother"-style government database, like the War Games computer, WOPR, keeping dossiers on everyone and everything. So what governments can do instead is to cherrypick, micronationalize anyone they want. They can use National Security Letters. And this is what the Frontline described:

HEDRICK SMITH: [on camera] You can't have a big database-

PETER SWIRE: Yeah, you can't have the big Brainiac with the one database on all Americans run by the government. But here's the trick. What you can do, if you're the FBI, is you can ping the private sector database. "Hey, Lexis-Nexis."

HEDRICK SMITH: You can access it?

PETER SWIRE: You can access it. "Hey, give me some information on this person" or on that person. And as long as you just access it one at a time, which is the way it works anyways, Privacy Act doesn't apply because it's not a government database, it's the private sector database. The law doesn't apply to the private sector data.

HEDRICK SMITH: Why should Americans worry about the government having the same kind of information that private companies have, companies like Choicepoint?

MICHAEL WOODS, FBI National Security Atty., 1997-02: Well, the easy answer is that Choicepoint can't come and arrest you. They can't come search your house. They can't use that information to- to sort of put into motion the machinery of the justice system. Once it's in the hands of the government, it has those consequences, and that's why the government is looking for the information.

In place of Choicepoint, I would substitute Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and RiM. I do not have any way of knowing which came first, the chicken or the egg. In recent weeks the following things have happened:

* Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister, and apparently just as much of an asshole) said, "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away ... People behave a lot better when they have their real names down ... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." (Quotes from the Huffington Post via The Atlantic Wire.)

* Google Plus launched and they enforce a radical, pushy real name policy. If you try to circumvent the policy, you can lose your accounts on *OTHER* Google services. (This feels like a 'trust' to me. When this type of thing starts to be possible, I think Google is too big and should be broken up.) Google has changed a lot in a short time. I don't think anything that critics like Eli Pariser or Rebecca MacKinnon are saying in their TED talks is hyperbole. (I might be moving this blog off Blogspot if I decide to get on Google Plus for some reason. This radical new exercise of monopoly power is fucking unacceptable.)

* After several days of rioting in London, Prime Minister Cameron is considering shutting down social networking. The social networking companies are quick to confirm that they will work with law enforcement and government. This is fine so long as law enforcement and government is fair and accurate. But what if law enforcement and government is the Tea Party, willing to tear down society for a Jubilee year? Apparently Blackberry messaging is encrypted. I don't know the details of how good or secure it is. I'm sure Slashdot readers and people who are more hardcore or more informed than I am have three more things, new open-source products, to substitute for "Blackberry Messaging" which I won't even have heard about for another six months. That's all fine. I think there is always going to be a sliver of very savvy programmers who can still communicate securely, but these examples worry me because the bulk of all people are willing and/or able to be swayed. If the general flavor of anonymous communication and of strong encryption starts to be more negative, the Karen Silkwoods, Erin Brockovitches (I haven't seen either of these movies) may be stopped in their tracks. If surveillance is met with a shrug, it means that certain types of communication are not going to get through. And I think the push for austerity may lead to new categories of people who may have bread-and-butter economic reasons to oppose governments. It appears that an ideology that disregards the opinion of most regular people is gaining strength. I have a "What's the Matter With Kansas?" observation when I look at regular peoples' relationships with the technology oligopolies that would sell them out whenever a government asks.

Edits coming. To add. al-Awlaki. What if RiM cooperation with government leads to pre-emptive execution? Greenwald's point about the poor track record and the wild inaccuracies in Guantanamo detainees, people picked up for a bounty and so on. Also, a third example of micronationalization: Rotenberg on DN saying that these days, the private sector can do much of government's spying for it.

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