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<nettime> Digital Citizenship: from liberal privilege to democratic eman
Richard Barbrook on Mon, 23 Mar 2015 05:50:23 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Digital Citizenship: from liberal privilege to democratic emancipation


'Government founded ... on a system of universal peace, on the
indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man ... interests not particular
individuals, but nations, in its progress, and promises a new era to the
human race.' - Tom Paine, Rights of Man

In the second decade of the 21st century, citizenship is defined not
just by the people being able to choose the political leadership of
their nation through regular elections, but also by the legal protection
of their human rights, such as media freedom, personal privacy, fair
trials and religious toleration.  Enshrined in both national
constitutions and international treaties, these democratic precepts
ensure that individual citizens can express their views and campaign for
causes without fear of persecution or discrimination. Yet, when they
were first codified during the 17th and 18th centuries' modernising
revolutions which overthrew aristocratic and priestly despotism in
Western Europe and North America, these fundamental freedoms were
initially restricted to a minority of the population: white male
property-owners. Despite the universalist rhetoric of the English 1689
Bill of Rights, the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the
Citizen and the USA's 1791 Bill of Rights, men without property, all
women and the African slaves who were property remained outside their
constitutional protection. In this pioneering liberal iteration,
political and civil freedom was founded upon economic exploitation.
Human rights were the privilege of the few not the emancipation of the

Over the past two centuries, this oligarchic interpretation of
citizenship has been superseded by a more democratic vision of
individual liberty. Adopted in the immediate aftermath of the victory
over fascism, the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights included the
previously excluded within their provisions. All adults were now
entitled to the full rights of political citizenship. When these
mid-20th century charters were being drawn up, there were fierce debates
between Left and Right over whether social and economic rights should
also be given legal recognition. Seeking to mobilise the masses against
its internal and external enemies, the Jacobins had promised in their
1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that the French
republic would ensure that all citizens had access to the necessities of
life. In 1944, responding to the global wartime emergency, US president
Franklin Roosevelt had called for a new bill of rights which guaranteed
employment, housing, healthcare, education and pensions for the whole
population. Although the Right vetoed their inclusion in the 1948 and
1950 charters, the Left's socio-economic precepts of human liberty were
eventually codified in the United Nations' 1966 International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Individual freedoms required
the collective means to realise them in practice. The liberties of the
many must take precedence over the privileges of the few. 

During the past few decades, this socialist version of human rights has
been almost forgotten.  For the Left as well as the Right, the implosion
of the Soviet Union has justified a return to the original liberal
interpretation of these constitutional principles. According to the
USSR's 1936 Fundamental Rights & Duties of Citizens, every adult was
entitled to an impressive collection of both political-civil and
socio-economic freedoms. Unfortunately, as anyone who tried to put them
into practice soon discovered to their cost, these emancipatory promises
had been devised as ideological mystifications. By emphasising social
and economic rights over political and civil liberty, the Stalinist
dictatorship could deny both types of citizenship to its citizens.  Not
surprisingly, many of those who opposed this totalitarian regime
concluded that the Left's attempts to extend human rights into civil
society had negated their original intention: protecting individual
freedom from state tyranny. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,
the demise of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and Russia was symbolised by
their new democratic governments' enthusiasm for the 18th century
interpretation of personal liberty. The USA's 1791 Bill of Rights didn't
need augmenting by the UN's 1966 International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights. On the contrary, political and civil freedom
from state interference was the only possible form of freedom in the
post-modern world. Liberalism and democracy were synonymous. 

The recent revelations by Edward Snowden and other whistle-blowers about
the American empire's megalomanic scheme to spy upon every inhabitant of
the planet have discredited the West's self-identification as the global
champion of human rights. Even with their huge resources, the Stalinist
spooks of the KGB with their 20th century industrial technologies were
only able to monitor the activities of a minority of Soviet citizens. In
contrast, the NSA is now equipped with 21st century digital technologies
which can intercept the emails, texts, phone calls, web browsing, media
downloads and social media activity of almost all of humanity. Most
worryingly, the liberal guarantees of the 1791 Bill of Rights have
failed to protect the American people from the totalitarian ambitions of
their own nation's secret police. Added as the 4th Amendment of the US
constitution, a clause of this charter promised that the private
communications of individual citizens could only be intercepted in
exceptional circumstances which required judicial authorisation.
However, this fundamental principle was quickly discarded  to reassure
an American public terrorised by Al Qaeda's 2001 murderous attacks on
New York and Washington DC. Having obtained the approval of a supine
legislature and compliant courts, the US government ordered the NSA to
build the technical infrastructure for the ubiquitous surveillance of
the entire global population. Like its defunct Stalinist rival, the
American empire now champions the ideal of individual freedom to negate
its implementation in practice. Far from advancing political and civil
rights, the abandonment of socio-economic rights has emboldened the
imperial hegemon to eviscerate all legal restrictions on its repressive
powers at home and abroad. National security is now the antithesis of
personal liberty. 

The NSA's totalitarian project to place the whole of humanity under
permanent real-time surveillance is built upon the dominance of
corporate America over the Net. Whether for targeted advertising, market
research or customer relations, these dotcom companies have become
proficient at gathering and analysing data about how people are using
their products and services. From social media postings to on-line
shopping, people are constantly sharing intimate details of their
private lives with strangers.  For the NSA's spooks, gaining access to
this confidential information which can reveal an individual's political
opinions, moral beliefs and cultural tastes is a top priority. Since
anyone could be an enemy of the American empire, everyone on this planet
is a target of surveillance. According to some clever hackers and
resourceful entrepreneurs, this illegal snooping can be thwarted by
developing strong forms of encryption for the masses. However, as
revealed by Snowden's leaks, any technological fix is unlikely to
provide a long-term solution for protecting personal privacy. It isn't
just that the NSA has become adept at breaking encryption by
compromising software and hardware security. Above all, the 18th
century's concept of a citizenry composed of atomised individuals is an
anachronism for the 21st century's networked masses. What was once
revolutionary has now become reactionary.  At the dawn of modernity,
liberalism emerged as the philosophy of the white male property-owners
who challenged monarchical oppression and clerical bigotry. With
capitalism now in its dotage, the boosters of neo-liberalism have
appropriated this radical heritage to excuse the social and
environmental depredations of corrupt governments, fraudulent banks and
tax-dodging corporations. By praising political-civil rights to demonise
socio-economic rights, these apologists of the American empire have
undermined the juridical foundations of both types of citizenship. The
defence of liberal democracy against Stalinist tyranny has morphed into
the advocacy of neo-liberal oligarchy against plebeian democracy.

At this dangerous moment in the history of humanity, personal freedom is
threatened by the intrusive attentions of both authoritarian states and
monopolistic businesses. If liberty and democracy are to be enhanced
within the Net, what is now required is an energetic public debate over
how to construct a new constitutional settlement which nurtures today's
collective forms of digital citizenship. In the virtual world as in real
life, people must be confident that not only their personal
communications will remain private, but also they can freely express
controversial opinions without inhibition. Crucially, these political
and civil rights must be combined with socio-economic rights. The
sharing of information over the Net is a premonition of the
democratisation of the whole productive process. If they are to
contribute to this collaborative endeavour, everyone must have access to
the knowledge and technologies which will be used to build the emerging
network society. Like its liberal and socialist predecessors, this new
dispensation should be guided by its own rules of the game. The creation
of a Net Bill of Rights codifies the mutually agreed principles for
regulating individuals' on-line activities in the common interest. By
collectively defining a new vision of digital citizenship, this
generation can make its own world-historical contribution towards
building a truly human civilisation. The better future must be
anticipated in the troubled present.  Let's seize this opportunity to
transform our utopian dreams into everyday life!

Richard Barbrook,
8th March 2015,
London, England.

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