nettime's_zentral_kommittee on Wed, 7 Aug 2013 20:34:22 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Danny O'Brien: On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

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On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

   So I'm reading [27]the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling
   about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the
   guy, I'm clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

   Then, [28]like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He's reeling off a
   list of names, from [29]7iber to [30]Bytes For All. I recognise them.
   They're a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from [31]a
   project I'm working on.

   This what he says about those groups, in passing:

     Just look at them all, and that's just the A's and B's... Obviously,
     a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected
     people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a
     swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden?

     Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they
     have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of
     their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They've been living in a pitiful
     dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an
     electronic frontier--a frontier being, by definition, a place that
     never had any laws.

   Well, let's go through the Chairman's list alphabetically, and see if
   they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about
   the electronic frontier.

   First on the list, [32]7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so
   politically-connected that their own government [33]banned them last
   month from Jordan's domestic Internet. I'm not sure reaching out to
   them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East.
   Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the [34]groups
   translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn't exactly
   endear them to the local states.

   Next up, [35]Access. Access has a base in the United States, where
   aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on [36]an
   espionage charge. I note they've been in such "a pitiful dream world"
   about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years
   campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to [37]get https turned
   on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it -- I'm sure
   entirely accidentally -- from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones
   that EFF has been telling people about [38]since 2006.

   Similarly,[39] must be incredibly ignorant about the
   surveillance state, given that it's been investigating and
   whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service [40]for 13
   years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia's
   secret police.

   But hey, that's just words on the Internet, right? What we really need
   is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our
   next witness, [41]Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting
   surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people
   onto the streets of Berlin.

   Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security
   state a bigger issue in Germany this year on [42]September 7th, at
   Potsdamerplatz. I can't imagine any of those people will be agitating
   for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

   Moving on: here's a pic from those NGO types at the [43]Bahrain Center
   for Human Rights.

   That's the back of [44]Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about
   the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and
   phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini
   government.He's been imprisoned in part for his work on social

   Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights
   in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance,
   because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed
   because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious
   web addresses. [45]Here's their detailed report. Note that that
   particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that
   kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

   Wrapping up those As and Bs, [46]Bolo Bhi and [47]Bytes for All are
   both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I've seen in
   advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the
   countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the
   United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

   The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet
   defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots
   activism and start, I don't know, hob-nobbing the people they are
   actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have
   any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays
   a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these

   Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than
   that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we
   do in the "electronic civ lib" world is actually defend real people
   targetted by this surveillance. It's been like that since around about
   2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it's
   around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on
   government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of
   surveillance or Internet activity.

   And it's weird that Bruce doesn't know that things got this weird five
   years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it.
   Here's how another of [48]his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the
   O'Reilly Open Source Convention.

     In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need
     a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty
     soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to
     official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on
     dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty
     good dissident: he's persistent, he means what he says, and he's
     certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and
     Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

     Y'know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we
     ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking
     Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck
     the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

     Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to
     some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn't the
     end of the story. That's the start of a dissident's story. And this
     isn't about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from
     the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It's Globalution.

   Okay, that's a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O'Reilly audience. But
   hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It's "globalution"!

   In the end, it wasn't Lessig who got cracked down on by the US
   government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here
   [49]they are at the time. They were both at [50]that conference. Aaron
   left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He [51]blogged about
   it though.

   Bruce continues:

     I like to think I'm one of your friends. That's easy enough to say.
     But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that
     it's about deeds, not words. It's about words that become deeds when
     they're in the box.

   So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here's [52]Bruce's
   words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and
   horribly graduated to official dissident:

     Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead
     end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his
     bosses never knew it had... [People just like Manning] are banal.
     Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy
     who probably would have been pretty much okay if he'd been left
     alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.


   In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk
   activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the
   UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit
   that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

   Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and
   frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story
   about our corner of the political universe -- digital wiretaps, online
   censorship, public key cryptography -- it always seemed to be about
   what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then,
   I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our
   fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

   One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was [53]coming into town for a book
   reading, and we thought: here's our chance. Like good Nineties digital
   activists, we'd all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a
   friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast.
   After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we
   took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and
   begged him to help.

   Forget defending crypto, he said. It's doomed. You're screwed.

   No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary

   Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I
   listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for
   [54]"Zeitgeist", and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of
   crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of
   whom [55]are still working on that [56]fight [57]today.

   Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As
   Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater
   and interlinked world of what he called "global civic society", who,
   behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work
   together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for
   decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to
   make them work for everyone.

   Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a [58]myriad other ways
   to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the
   number who get beaten up or killed. I don't think any of us live in
   much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical
   than you'd believe after seeing what's gone down. And I know, given the
   odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the
   hardest critics on each other about that. They'd laugh me out of town
   if I ever said "globulution", for instance.

   And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.






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