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<nettime> Julian Assange on Living in a Surveillance Society
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<nettime> Julian Assange on Living in a Surveillance Society

Who Should Own the Internet?
Julian Assange on Living in a Surveillance Society

DEC. 4, 2014


It is now a journalistic clichà to remark that George Orwellâs â1984â
was âprophetic.â The novel was so prophetic that its prophecies have
become modern-day prosaisms. Reading it now is a tedious experience.
Against the omniscient marvels of todayâs surveillance state, Big
Brotherâs fixtures â the watchful televisions and hidden microphones â
seem quaint, even reassuring.

Everything about the world Orwell envisioned has become so obvious that
one keeps running up against the novelâs narrative shortcomings.

I am more impressed with another of his oracles: the 1945 essay âYou and
the Atomic Bomb,â in which Orwell more or less anticipates the
geopolitical shape of the world for the next half-century. âAges in
which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make,â he
explains, âwill tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant
weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance ... A
complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon â so
long as there is no answer to it â gives claws to the weak.â

Describing the atomic bomb (which had only two months before been used
to flatten Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as an âinherently tyrannical weapon,â
he predicts that it will concentrate power in the hands of the âtwo or
three monstrous super-statesâ that have the advanced industrial and
research bases necessary to produce it. Suppose, he asks, âthat the
surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic
bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it,
against people who are unable to retaliate?â

The likely result, he concludes, will be âan epoch as horribly stable as
the slave empires of antiquity.â Inventing the term, he predicts âa
permanent state of âcold war,"â a âpeace that is no peace,â in which
âthe outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more

There are parallels between Orwellâs time and ours. For one, there has
been a lot of talk about the importance of âprotecting privacyâ in
recent months, but little about why it is important. It is not, as we
are asked to believe, that privacy is inherently valuable. It is not.

The real reason lies in the calculus of power: the destruction of
privacy widens the existing power imbalance between the ruling factions
and everyone else, leaving âthe outlook for subject peoples and
oppressed classes,â as Orwell wrote, âstill more hopeless.â

The second parallel is even more serious, and even less well understood.
At present even those leading the charge against the surveillance state
continue to treat the issue as if it were a political scandal that can
be blamed on the corrupt policies of a few bad men who must be held
accountable. It is widely hoped that all our societies need to do to fix
our problems is to pass a few laws.

The cancer is much deeper than this. We live not only in a surveillance
state, but in a surveillance society. Totalitarian surveillance is not
only embodied in our governments; it is embedded in our economy, in our
mundane uses of technology and in our everyday interactions.

The very concept of the Internet â a single, global, homogenous network
that enmeshes the world â is the essence of a surveillance state. The
Internet was built in a surveillance-friendly way because governments
and serious players in the commercial Internet wanted it that way. There
were alternatives at every step of the way. They were ignored.

At their core, companies like Google and Facebook are in the same
business as the U.S. governmentâs National Security Agency. They collect
a vast amount of information about people, store it, integrate it and
use it to predict individual and group behavior, which they then sell to
advertisers and others. This similarity made them natural partners for
the NSA, and thatâs why they were approached to be part of PRISM, the
secret Internet surveillance program.

Unlike intelligence agencies, which eavesdrop on international
telecommunications lines, the commercial surveillance complex lures
billions of human beings with the promise of âfree services.â Their
business model is the industrial destruction of privacy. And yet even
the more strident critics of NSA surveillance do not appear to be
calling for an end to Google and Facebook.

Recalling Orwellâs remarks, there is an undeniable âtyrannicalâ side to
the Internet. But the Internet is too complex to be unequivocally
categorized as a âtyrannicalâ or a âdemocraticâ phenomenon.

When people first gathered in cities, they were able to coordinate in
large groups for the first time, and to exchange ideas quickly, at
scale. The consequent technical and technological advances brought about
the dawn of human civilization.

Something similar has been happening in our epoch. It is possible for
more people to communicate and trade with others in more places in a
single instant than it ever has been in history. The same developments
that make our civilization easier to surveil make it harder to predict.
They have made it easier for the larger part of humanity to educate
itself, to race to consensus, and to compete with entrenched power groups.

This is encouraging, but unless it is nurtured, it may be short-lived.

If there is a modern analogue to Orwellâs âsimpleâ and âdemocratic
weapon,â which âgives claws to the weakâ it is cryptography, the basis
for the mathematics behind Bitcoin and the best secure communications
programs. It is cheap to produce: cryptographic software can be written
on a home computer. It is even cheaper to spread: software can be copied
in a way that physical objects cannot. But it is also insuperable â the
mathematics at the heart of modern cryptography are sound, and can
withstand the might of a superpower. The same technologies that allowed
the Allies to encrypt their radio communications against Axis intercepts
can now be downloaded over a dial-up Internet connection and deployed
with a cheap laptop.
Continue reading the main story

Whereas in 1945, much of the world faced a half-century of tyranny as a
result of the atomic bomb, in 2015, we face the inexorable spread of
invasive mass surveillance and the attendant transfer of power to those
connected to its superstructures. It is too early to say whether the
âdemocratizingâ or the âtyrannicalâ side of the Internet will eventually
win out. But acknowledging them â and perceiving them as the field of
struggle â is the first step toward acting effectively.

Humanity cannot now reject the Internet, but clearly we cannot surrender
it either. Instead, we have to fight for it. Just as the dawn of atomic
weapons inaugurated the Cold War, the manifold logic of the Internet is
the key to understanding the approaching war for the intellectual center
of our civilization.

Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks and the author of the
recently published âWhen Google Met WikiLeaks.â

A version of this special report appears in print on December 6, 2014,
in The International New York Times. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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