Amazon’s contract with ICE, the shady work of the data analytics firm Palantir, the political gerrymandering of social media platforms, the profiling, tracking and control of individuals – none of these modern horrors are an aberration.
In fact, writes journalist and author Yasha Levine in Surveillance Valley, these events are wholly consistent with the internet’s hidden history, where it started life as a military intelligence vision – and a weapon for surveillance and control.
The book painstakingly charts the internet’s embryonic growth and its subsequent reificiation by a group of visionaries who pitched the intelligence agencies with a new means for power. It covers ground as diverse as the early cybernetics movement, through to the stealth privatisation of the web.
All the while everyone from the intelligence contractors involved, through to the privacy movement’s loudest voices, were cleverly branded as counter-culture icons by influential media outlets. They were presented as outliers, fringe figures that would fight the power, a swindle that persists to this day.
Even billionaires were presented by Wired as rebellious freedom fighters – with the magazine placing John Malone, dressed up as Mad Max and brandishing a shotgun, on its cover in 1994 as he was engulfed in a fight with the FCC.
The pioneers in the business of complex profiling like Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page meanwhile, would downplay the capabilities that underpinned the search company’s stratospheric rise.
True believers in the Bay Area continued to sow the seeds of a new world, but these early cybernetic communes fell to power struggles, in-fighting, bullying and abuse. They were fans of hippy author Stuart Brand’s influential ‘Whole Earth Catalog‘, which would have a long-lasting impact on the thinking of heavyweight figures in the technology business circuit, including Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs.
What Levine’s book accomplishes with deft clarify is to detail the long list of ugly truths behind the history of the internet. It is essential reading for onlookers who want to make sense of the continual bad news cycle that surrounds Silicon Valley today.
Throughout the book, the reader is introduced to figures like MIT professor Norbert Wiener, the influential wunderkind credited with coining cybernetics and an early advocate for the transformational power of technology – lapped up and distorted with equal voracity by the military crowd.
In The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Wiener would later warn: “Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labour. Any labour which competes with slave labour must accept the economic conditions of slave labour.
“It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke.”
Others, like J.C.R. Licklider, would also play an instrumental role. He would pitch the American military and intelligence agencies on the potential for tremendous power in a networked world with the USA at the helm. His vision for networked technology would go on to be created by ARPA, the military research group and forerunner to DARPA that built the ARPANET – the connected machines that formed the basis for the internet as we know it.
Curiously, Levine also details how sections of the privacy movement were bankrolled by American military money. As people like Jacob Appelbaum boasted to followers of their heroic fights against oppressive government, they were receiving six-figure salaries.
“The story is that the entire privacy community, the biggest most famous privacy activists in the world, are subsidised and financed by the American national security state,” says Levine, speaking with Techworld last week. “The same forces they’re claiming to fight on the internet.”
So there’s much to feel pessimistic about by the time you reach the epilogue.
But there are also, suggests Levine, signs that the mask is slipping, and that the internet is being recognised for what it is: a fallible thing that people built.
“Looking at the dark history of the internet, the fact that there is no point in the internet’s history where it was a force of good or pure or magical and radical, there really is no point to return to,” says Levine. “Seeing how it’s only gotten worse, it actually makes me more optimistic – because the internet cannot be separated from society.
“All the things that people are trying to push in the world now that are trying to take on the power of the big corporations and the power of the military industrial complex and the power of spies, these are all connected to the internet, it cannot be removed from that larger struggle.”
Whatever happens, he adds, the internet – this technology that has become so interwoven with our material lives, with that trend only set to pick up pace with the deployment of 5G networks – cannot be removed from society, and will likely be a large part of it.
“It shouldn’t be put in its own corner and treated somehow differently or somehow apart from society,” he adds. “In that sense, I’m optimistic. Because the internet isn’t some fringe problem but should be part and parcel of the larger problems that are plaguing societies. It’s not a surprise that the internet is dominated by these giant corporations and intelligence agencies and these spies, because by and large, our societies are dominated by those forces, and so those are very powerful forces in our society.
“Spies and corporations: they dominate our cultures, our political systems. It’s not a surprise that the internet is dominated by them as well. It actually makes a lot of sense, because the internet is a reflection of society.”
Public opinion seems to be turning on big tech and it’s message of changing the world. While the Silicon Valley corporations may have been happy to be perceived as an unparalleled force for positive change, that belief is no longer going unchallenged.
Although the major technology companies will find it more than acceptable to be understood as more powerful than governments – or, at least, your common transnational conglomerate – their vast wealth, power and influence are becoming closely tied to ballooning inequality among sections of the public.
“They are very much rooted in America, they’re American companies, they’re tied to American imperial power and American might,” says Levine. “They’re instruments of that – but also piggyback on that in terms of their global expansion. So what I want people to take away from my book is that the internet is very much part of America, an American thing, an American invention, obviously it’s gone international but these largest, most prominent companies are American companies.
“They’re very much rooted in a certain place, a certain time, a certain culture, a certain political system.
“It’s not some kind of gee-whiz technology that floats above the world like a cloud. It’s actually very much flesh and bone and wires, and certain corporations that have certain ties in a certain place in a certain country. That’s the takeaway I want people to have, to treat the internet no differently than you’d treat any other big industry.”
That may become clearer as, as it has in recent years, the closer integration between Silicon Valley and the American state becomes more overt – a phenomenon that Levine says has “always been there” but is now “much more blatant and much more direct”.
Both the American government and the Silicon Valley companies have long warned against the ‘Balkanisation’ of the internet. But there seems to be a strange new schism emerging where the American government itself is promoting that kind of ‘Balkanisation’, particularly in light of the claims levied at Russian companies like Kaspersky and Chinese companies like Huawei – that they are feeding information to the intelligence agencies of their countries of origin or that they are spying in some capacity.
There is a bitter irony here. What we know about America and its other partners in the Five Eyes alliance – Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia – is that they are spying on a massive worldwide surveillance dragnet, as exposed by the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden (whose ultra-libertarian leanings do not escape Levine in his book).
Levine compares this to the rhetoric for free markets which tends to be the lynchpin for American policy, until it is challenged.
“The idea is it’s free only if we get to dictate the terms, and we are the ones who are in power and we control what the terms are of global trade,” he says. “It’s the same thing for the internet. Everything is graded so the internet is an engine of freedom, the internet is an engine of democracy, it’s totally not connected to American hegemony or American empire, it’s totally disconnected, it’s just this nice and abstract force for good.
“Unless, that same force of good somehow impedes our ability to make money or worries us in some way.”
He notes Hillary Clinton’s support for ‘internet freedom’, which observers will note seems to contradict her position today on tighter control and the Democratic Party’s unwillingness to face up to its own responsibility for failures, instead citing Russia. There are striking parallels here between the current drive to blame domestic protest on Russia and the cold warriors who didn’t believe that things like the civil rights movement could be home-grown.
“Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State was architect of, or the face of this thing called ‘internet freedom’, this programme which essentially said that if you are a country and you do anything to regulate the internet and you have your own sovereign laws and ideas about what should or shouldn’t be allowed on the internet, we are going to do everything in our power to destabilise you, and make you reverse course, to make you completely open up the internet again,” he says.
“Internet imperialism, right? But it was couched in this language of freedom and democracy, and that the internet is a global square – a public square where everybody can come and have an opinion and all this stuff.
“Meanwhile, as soon as the internet was used to basically bash her and she lost the election, she blamed it on the internet, and on the undemocratic abuse of the internet, and vowed that we needed to put controls on the internet, that we needed to hunt down all these people who released all these emails about her. The trolls, and the disinformation.”
Now, she “wants to regulate the internet” and bring companies like Facebook and Google to heel so that they are “much more in line with American interests” or defend them from outside forced.
“Her rhetoric on this stuff did a U-turn,” he says, “which goes to show that the internet is geopolitical technology. It has been from the very beginning, when it was much more overtly tied to the military and was this command communication system in the 60s and 70s. It still remains that but of course the internet is now this commercial platform.
“Regardless of that, the internet is still a geopolitical technology. It has geopolitics to it. And so whoever controls this technology, whoever controls the platforms, it’s their tool suddenly, right?”
A full transcript of this conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Most of all my takeaway is, like capitalism itself and the dystopian hell-word we live in, there’s literally no opting out of this stuff at all – like with the cybernetic communes, people are trying to opt out of it, or recalibrate reality with this technocrat-type utopian thinking, but it seems doomed to fail. It’s all around us if that makes sense.
Exactly, it’s like trying to live off the grid, right? Living off the grid or trying to disconnect from society – it might appear like you’re disconnecting from it but in reality it’s happening all around you.
And it’s like people who try to disconnect from society and live naturally or something but meanwhile you have the environment being destroyed, you have the oceans being poisoned, you have pollution everywhere. And so we live in this interconnected world where I think – we are way past that stage where you can retreat as a hermit into some kind of cave, and if you criticise society or something you can go up into the misty mountains somewhere and turn your back on the world. It’s pretty much impossible now.
The same goes for the internet. People say ‘well, if you don’t like it, juts disconnect. Don’t use it’. Well, yeah, but society runs on this stuff now. So whether or not you use Google or whether or not you use any of these technologies, you’re probably going to be emailing with someone or communicating with someone.
And they’re going to be using these things too and you’re going to be trapped in that web. Anyway, you can’t really live in the modern world without taking part in some way in this technology, the internet and everything that’s connected to us that surrounds us.
The internet really brought that home I think – that we do live in a world where we are all connected and everything is connected and you can’t really retreat. The libertarian fantasy.
Right. I saw something today about 23andme, that whole genetic thing, and it’s like, you might not go in for it yourself – but all it takes is one close family member to do it and that’s your entire history profiled, and I guess it’s similar with your movements online. Facebook tracks you whether or not you use Facebook and so on.
Yeah exactly. As a journalist I opted out of using Gmail a while ago, probably about 10 years ago, I switched to a different provider that I pay for. Probably all that data goes to some spy agency anyway but they don’t make their money off of just reading and analysing and profiling every interaction that I have with everyone. I just wasn’t comfortable giving that information to Google, especially because I’m communicating and emailing with sources.
I don’t know if it helps at all but I just couldn’t use Google for that at least. But everyone I know uses Google and uses Gmail, so everything – all the interaction I have with my colleagues or family members, friends, they use Gmail so my part of the conversation gets sucked up into their data. They profile the people you are interacting with. I get trapped in Google’s surveillance web whether or not I use their services, and the same goes for everybody else who uses email. So there’s really no way to get out of it.
I do think this idea of opting out only works to a point, you can opt out of some things but really when the basis of the internet is based on for-profit surveillance and profiling people… and then targeting them for influence with advertising and things like that, there’s only so much you can do by opting out of certain services. You have to really try to change things politically, it’s not about personal choice. It’s the same thing with, let’s say the oil economy. I can not buy a car and bike – and millions of other people will do the same thing because they take personal responsibility for this stuff. Which is great, but then the savings that they help foster probably get eaten up by a single day on an American air force base somewhere. Just the amount of fuel that’s used by the military is just astounding. On a single day of the Iraq war some ridiculous amount of oil was being used.
So there’s only so much you can do when the whole system is based on something you’re trying to protest and counteract. It really has to be political and it has to be foundational, society-wide for it to work.
Another thing is that when you look at the history of the internet, the internet is very much a part of society. So when people focus on solutions – what do we do about privacy on the internet? what do we do about this, what do we do about that – well, how can you have privacy on the internet when you don’t have privacy off the internet? When you don’t have privacy in your workplace, when you don’t have privacy from banks and credit card companies – when you don’t have privacy form intelligence agencies?
When the whole society is predicated on monitoring you and watching you, how are you going to get rid of it on the internet? It’s bigger than the internet, all these problems that are part of the internet.
Monopoly power – the fact that Google and Facebook control so much of the internet – well, they’re not the only monopolies in the world and the reason the internet is monopolised is because much of the rest of the world is monopolised by corporations as well.
So you have these things that are present on the internet but they are actually much bigger social and political problems that need to be addressed, for all sorts of things at once which makes it a much more difficult problem actually.
I promise I’ll get back to your book specifically but you just reminded me, me and a few friends were in America last year in a small town called Carlsbad, which is near Roswell, there’s a kind of shale gas and oil boom going on there. My friend was really into recycling and she said to me she found it utterly depressing: ten of her lifetimes is probably undone by the traffic that goes through that small town in America in a single day.
When you come face to face with these bigger systems you realise that awareness and personal choice while important is an illusion in a lot of ways, that has to be packaged with some kind of bigger collective action that limits the sources of these problems. Totally, it’s depressing.
I was going to ask you later on if you had any advice on how not to be a pessimist but I guess I’ll ask you now.
Well, you know, look the world is going to shit – I don’t think you’d have to be just focused on the internet to be a pessimist.
It seems like just about everywhere you look things are going bad – starting with the world slowly heating up and boiling us alive… in the near future.
But looking at the internet, the dark history of the internet, the fact there is no point in the internet’s history where it was a force of good or pure or magical and radical, there really is no point to return to.
Seeing how it’s only gotten worse, it actually makes me more optimistic because the internet cannot be separated from society.
And so – all the things that people are trying to push in the world now that are trying to take on the power of the big corporations and the power of the military industrial complex and the power of spies, these are all connected to the internet, it cannot be removed from that larger struggle.
Whatever happens, the internet is going to be a large part of it, and it should be part of a broader political programme. So it shouldn’t be put in its own corner and treated somehow differently or somehow apart from society.
In that sense I’m optimistic because the internet isn’t some fringe problem but should be made part and parcel of the larger problems that are plaguing societies. So it’s not a surprise that the internet is dominated by these giant corporations and intelligence agencies and these spies, because by and large our societies are dominated by those forces, and so those are very powerful forces in our society. Spies and corporations: they dominate our cultures, our political systems. So its not a surprise that the internet is dominated by them as well, it actually makes a lot of sense, because the internet is a reflection of society.
And so in that sense I’m positive because if it was just some fringe thing we could never really tackle on its own… because it is so tied to society, people created the internet – we can change it.
I hope that’s the big takeaway from my book, which is that all too often people see the internet as something that stands above society, this international system that seems to have no borders or national borders. It goes right through them. These companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter want people to think they’re beyond governments, that they’re these new systems that are international and global and unite people across cultures and worlds, which they do, but it’s also deceptive because they are very much rooted in America, they’re American companies, they’re tied to American imperial power and American might.
They’re instruments of that, but also piggyback on that in terms of their global expansion – so what I want people to take away from my book is that the internet is very much part of America, an American thing, an American invention, obviously it’s gone international but these largest most prominent companies are American companies, they’re very much rooted in a certain place, a certain time, a certain culture, a certain political system.
It’s not some kind of gee-whiz technology that floats above the world like a cloud, it’s actually very much flesh and bones and wires, and certain corporations that have certain ties in a certain place in a certain country. So that’s the takeaway I want people to have, to treat the internet no differently than you’d treat any other big industry.
I agree. I don’t want to get too philosophical but it’s clearly becoming less and less abstract or like spectacle, especially as it becomes more interwoven with our day to day material selves,you know, especially as things like 5G networks get stood up and they want to connect absolutely everything – I guess it’s easier to place in the real world in that sense. Or it’s becoming easier to place like that.
You’re right and look, I wrote the book as Brexit and Donald Trump were happening. It was published in the US and it came out in the UK just a month ago. So as I was finishing the manuscript Donald Trump was being elected. Donald trump, and Brexit I think for the US and the UK changed people’s understanding of the internet in a huge way.
For the first time people saw these companies like Facebook (as it stands for the internet and silicon valley) as services and platforms that have an actual impact on the world, that can be used as a weapon, can be used as propaganda, they can be used to elect people – whether or not they actually had any impact on Donald Trump’s election or Brexit that’s debatable, but people’s idea of the internet soured in a big way. People started getting really down on the internet – what the hell is this thing? It became less of an abstract entity, and more tied to these corporations that have no regulation and can do whatever the hell they want, can take whatever data they want from us and sell it, lease it, give it away for free to anybody.
It became a lot more concrete I think – people’s critical gaze of these platforms.
It was an interesting time for sure. When Trump was president-elect and not yet president, I was in America at that time – at Standing Rock – which I think I emailed you about, a while back, we found some NYU researchers who found that the government was leasing drones to scramble communications from Standing Rock at that time. It was interesting because that was such a social, internet-driven movement and it was literally being dampened with technology.
Exactly, and you see that happening in the realm of social media, in the realm of Facebook and Twitter where Twitter is now purging all these accounts, saying they’re connected to Russia, now that they’re connected to Venezuela. So they purged a bunch of accounts they said was connected to Venezuela – which, OK, fine, they might be propaganda accounts, maybe you can make a claim, but it’s not even clear how they’re making that determination. It’s very opaque.
And suddenly you realise that the national security interests of America are being enforced by Twitter and Facebook, the policy objectives against Maduro – to change the government in Venezuela – and Twitter is complying almost, suddenly singling out Venezuela at that very moment there is a political crisis happening in that country.
So you can agree or disagree with what’s happening in Venezuela or what America’s doing but it doesn’t remove the fact that suddenly these companies, Twitter and Facebook, are acting as arms of American power and American foreign policy, pretty directly and pretty blatantly I’d say.
This stuff is changing rapidly – whereas [social media] was seen to be disconnected from American politics and geopolitics, after 2016 a lot of things changed, and they’ve become a lot more firmly rooted and obviously rooted whereas [before] there was maybe a bit of a distance, it was a bit more cryptic. Now it’s just direct, they’re not trying to hide it any more.
With Facebook guided by the Atlantic Council and with advice from FireEye that has an about us on its page that says we’ve got nothing to do with the CIA.
Exactly, you have Facebook very much now basically using a NATO think tank to advise it fight fake news – it’s pretty incredible.
Of course, Facebook is doing that because of political pressure. In a lot of ways Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in helping Donald Trump communicate directly with voters, and clearly just as platforms were very useful to him. But they were also very useful to Bernie Sanders. In America, Bernie Sanders wages this campaign and in the beginning it didn’t seem like he wanted to win the primary, he didn’t want the nomination, but wanted to run to change the conversation and push Hillary Clinton a little bit to the left.
But Facebook was so effective in helping him organise and then helping him raise money – he was just a powerhouse. At the end he started taking it seriously and almost won, almost unseated Hillary Clinton who was backed by – everybody. And she almost lost it to this guy who didn’t even really want to win.
Facebook was a big part of that. Of course, it’s not the only thing but it helped him directly connect with people.
Suddenly, where Facebook was seen as a force for democracy, let’s say during the Arab spring, or anti-Putin protests in Russia, Facebook and Twitter were seen as these engines of democracy that needed to be unleashed even more. needed to be regulated even less. Just unleash them and they will do great things. But suddenly when these things are used in a similar way in America, they’re now suddenly seen as a threat by the political elite and the political establishment, and what we’ve been seeing over the past couple of years is a clampdown.
There’s legislation that’s always in the works for the past two years, it never really reaches the level of a vote but it’s always there under consideration that would regulate the advertising business of Silicon Valley, it would force Facebook to be much more transparent about who funds ads – it would be the first piece of regulation that at least enforces some kind of control and some kind of transparency on Silicon Valley’s advertising business.
And so they’re holding that up as a stick to get Facebook and Google and Twitter more in line with the needs of the political establishment.
I’ve been observing this for the past two years and it’s been kind of amazing – the integration between the state and the political establishment and these companies is becoming much more overt. Of course, it’s always been there but it’s much more overt and much more blatant, and much more direct.
I’ve been following quite closely and especially paying attention to what Facebook is openly censoring now, which is painted as divisive content as if the posts themselves were the problems rather than the root of the problems that these posts are about. It was funny to see I thought people cheering the censorship of people like Alex Jones who frankly I would not lose sleep about not being on these platforms, but at the same time Facebook was quite openly censoring pro-Venezuelan pages and Telesur English – way before this announcement of this new president that came out from nowhere. It seems like a really dangerous game we’re playing at the moment in terms of what’s being allowed to be seen on these platforms.
Exactly… I’ve followed Alex Jones for a long time and he’s a pig – for a while he was a bit more moderate but he was always dog whistling racism anti-Semitism, the worst kinds of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory bullshit, and suddenly he’s a problem. And of course you see people cheering his censorship and removal from all the major platforms. And OK, but you have to look at – what is the instrument of this power over this censorship? Who makes the actual decision? The actual decision rests with Facebook, rests with Google, they become the arbiters of what is acceptable, what an acceptable opinion or an acceptable political position is, and that to me is very dangerous and scary because you’re outsourcing these really important decisions about what is acceptable speech, to these powerful monopolies that clearly have a profit motive and a motive to hang onto their power.
And yet we are outsourcing that decision completely in an opaque way to these companies. They just do it for public relations purposes – they do whatever makes sense for them business-wise.
That’s where we’re driving as much of the decision whether or not to allow someone to have a place to express their opinions.
It’s really disturbing that a lot of people on the left and a lot of people who are progressives and liberals are cheering this on very loudly, and attacking anybody who was saying ‘hey, wait a second, what does it mean when we’re outsourcing this kind of decision making to a giant corporation like Facebook or Google?’
When we’re outsourcing what should be a decision made collectively or democratically in some kind of fashion, to censor speech to this giant unaccountable corporation. And people didn’t want to hear that, people on this sort of outrage train… but of course if you do that for Alex Jones you can do that for anybody else who becomes a threat in some way or is seen as unacceptable.
So of course it is going to be used for people who are anti-war, people who are against invasions and regime change, people who find themselves on the wrong side of a very important political debate and find themselves seen as a threat… they get censored too.
You have TeleSur, which is government funded, but also people who are branded Russian agents who are organising antifascist marches in Washington DC – they were all American, all these people were Americans, in America, organising against home-grown white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Suddenly the page they’re using to organise their movement is being called a Russian bot and a Russian disinformation operation without warning or any kind of recourse – just taken offline.
There’s so many instances it’s hard to even keep track. It’s almost on a daily basis that something like this happens. I’ve almost stopped trying to keep a tally of this because it’s happened so much.
I’ve talked to people from RAND and ex intelligence from the DIA and it’s really interesting how closely they stuck to that Russia narrative- everything divisive is Russian bots and it makes me wonder, part of your book made me wonder, if this is all a big lie, or if they really believe it, or a mixture of both. Because I thought there were some worrying parallels between the cold warriors who thought that all the civil rights activists in America who they were monitoring were outside agents of the USSR, and no actually it’s because life was shit in America for a lot of people.
I see a lot of parallels, yeah. When the internet was being created – some of the reasons why it was created in the ways that it was – was because there was serious political unrest in America in the 1960s and the early 1970s.
There was a very powerful anti-war movement, you had all these really influential and powerful left wing student organisations: the Students for Democratic Society, you had the civil rights movement, you had radical militant black activists, you had groups like the Weather Underground who were blowing up federal government buildings at some point in the early 70s. If you go back and look at the newspaper archives there were bombings being carried out by groups like the Weather Underground – it was not the only one just the most famous one – on an everyday basis. Bombs left in military research facilities at universities, federal government buildings… it seemed like there was a revolution happening.
Back then of course, the FBI, the military intelligence, the CIA and people in the White House, they looked at this and couldn’t believe that this was organic, that these people had legitimate grievances, this increasingly violent and radical political culture was coming out of something legitimate – legitimate political grievances people had with their country.
So they saw it as like a conspiracy, these people were being financed and being trained and were being unleashed by the Soviet Union to undermine America from within.
There were huge – several different surveillance programmes – that were initiated, the FBI the CIA, the US Army had a huge surveillance program that was illegal because the US Army isn’t supposed to be active on American soil. But they were infiltrating everyone – if there was three people they were there. They were the fourth. It’s kind of incredible.
And so the obvious way to deal with this is not to engage with these people politically but to try to take them out, whether it was through repression or surveillance or tactics to break up organisations to introduce doubt, to smear them, to jail people, to kill them to brutally repress them. This was the answer to this political crisis. And we are seeing the same thing happen in America now. This shift to the left in America that Bernie Sanders really highlighted in a big way – he didn’t create it but he highlighted it – whatever is happening America is moving to some left-wing position, it hasn’t calcified yet, people aren’t really sure what they want but they want the government to shift resources to take care of regular people, to give free healthcare, to give free education, to guarantee jobs, all these things. and instead of meeting people there everything is being described as some kind of Russian operation.
People don’t like Hillary because of the Russian trolls. They put up ads that made them think that way. It’s totally silly but it’s being used to silence dissenting opinions and all these things. It’s obviously – we haven’t gotten to the point where – the political culture of the 1970s was way more radical and itching for a fight and revolutionary in a lot of ways than today’s political culture. You don’t have left-wing radicals blowing up federal buildings. I’m not condoning this, but just that that was a totally normal step, or at least a somewhat normal step to take for hundreds of young, pretty privileged Americans, middle and upper middle class Americans to take, it’s pretty shocking.
You’re not seeing that now. But it’s still too radical for the establishment in America so that’s what’s going on.
There’s a fantastic Michael Parenti quote where he says the ruling class doesn’t want much, it just wants all of it, which chimes with everything we are seeing lately. There are similarities obviously in the UK with Corbyn running a serious opposition, and he was put on the ballot to have a left wing represented – and there was this surge of support for him. But obviously it’s still quite centre-left stuff: we want to be able to live without going into debt for five generations, we want to be able to afford food, things like that – that’s probably another conversation to have but it’s something I’ve noticed.
I’m curious – in terms of Corbyn – I have been watching it, I’m not there – but I imagine the internet has been a big tool for him, a big organising tool, because he doesn’t get access to traditional media really or if he does get access he’s usually smeared and insulted. And so I imagine the internet is a big deal for him as well no?
Yep and there have been some publications that vary in quality that have sprung up over the last couple of years, their political line is basically defending him against smears – if you look at the websites it’s sort of, this person says X but here’s the reality. Things like the Canary – which are not all great – but it’s definitely a grass roots web-based movement to defend him for sure.
What’s interesting about Corbyn is there probably was a Russian hack of this organisation called the Integrity Initiative, which is based in the UK and Scotland I think is its headquarters. It’s funded by the Ministry of Defence. and even Facebook kicked in a bit of money… it got money from a really weird right-wing foundation in America. But its a tory propaganda initiative, right, that’s primarily meant to smear Jeremy Corbyn and blame Brexit on the Russians. So it’s a very strange operation.
They had these clusters they talked about of academics and journalists who were working together. essentially like an operation that was designed to use the internet to weaponise the internet to attack Jeremy Corbyn and people who are supportive of him but also to blame Brexit on Russia, which is pretty funny because it was a tory thing, right? If anyone’s responsible for it the tories are responsible for it, and yet the government are funding a propaganda operation that’s designed to blame it on a foreign power.
It’s insane. There was a prominent Twitter user, I think he’s an academic at SOAS, he’s had some very prominent anti-intervention positions he was loud about, and the wildest thing happened the other year, he was splashed in the Times, smearing him and attacking him, and it was basically a massive article that was having a go at these people who were prominent online who were anti-intervention and such – it was crazy to see these people who have quite an influential following but they’re not celebrities or anything being portrayed in the media in this way.
Exactly – I know a lot of my colleagues, have waged essentially a running battle always having to defend themselves, to beat back smears and attacks on their credibility just because they are prominent online.
They’re not given any airtime on any of the networks, they’re not really give any space in any of the big news publications. so they’re online, they either have their own little magazines that they run, and they’re of course big on Twitter and Facebook but like the attacks are always coming. Again, look, the internet is interesting and social media is interesting because on the one hand it does provide this direct outlet to people who would not normally have an ability to connect with the world outside these traditional media properties even a few decades ago.
It’s an outlet. So it’s great for democracy, it seems like. But it’s also easy to organise counter attacks against that, and to either take them offline directly – but if you cant do that to marginalise their reputations, to attack their reputations to make them seem not credible, to make them seem conspiracy theorists, to smear them as supporters of dictators. all these things, to attempt to eat into their ability to reach people. So it’s going on all the time. The few independent voices there are now.
if you want to stay in the game you have to basically gear up for this constant constant constant fight.
I have got to be honest, it’s extremely – it takes so much energy and it takes so much effort to do that. Only a few people I know have that kind of stamina, to do their work and to engage in this. You don’t have any time off almost.
When I was writing my book and I was doing some reporting on the Tor Project, and I got a huge attack because of my reporting on looking at the links between the Tor Project – the anonymity browser that gives you anonymity on the internet and the basis of the dark web and the drug marketplaces and Silk Road and things like that – I was doing a bunch of reporting on it a few years back and was showing how essentially the whole privacy community, the whole crypto community, is funded by the US government and it’s funded by organisations that are spun off from the CIA and have this kind of dark history. And I got this – it was a multi year smear campaign.
They were really brutal and personal, I remember reading.
Yeah they tried all sorts of tactics from accusing me of being some kind of rapist and some kind of sexual deviant and a pervert and an abuser of women, the standard stuff to being a CIA agent to being a Putin agent to being a conspiracy theorist. Everything. There would be all these anonymous tips that would flow into the magazine where I worked at the time, Pando, and my editor would have to deal with this.
There was plants in the Guardian, there was plants in outlets like the LA Review of Books, accusing me of being a CIA agent, accusing me of leading an online mob to harass a woman, and all these things were obviously false but they required all this effort to put it back. They were extremely – I was exhausted. My editor was exhausted, he had my back completely, but it was exhausting because it was like a full-time job and it took away time and mental energy from other things that he was doing and that the paper was doing. It got to the point where it was very effective I thought.
Because what they did is they were able to dampen – I was going to do more reporting but they were able to dampen and tire us out and kill the zeal for pursuing this story because everyone on editorial was so overwhelmed by this and kind of over it already. You know? So thinking back on it, I didn’t even realise it at the time but thinking back on it, wow it was effective. On the one hand they were able to slow down my reporting, but also scare everybody else who thought about maybe picking up the story. Because that means they would get attacked this way and get sucked into this world.
If you’re not sure if some of these smears are true or not you’d be worried about getting in bed with me and following up on this stuff because maybe there is some truth to it – maybe I am just a propagandist for Putin, maybe I am just spreading disinformation, maybe I am this horrible person that they’re making me out to be.
And we’re talking about not just anonymous trolls but some of the most prominent people in the privacy community spreading this stuff.
So they not only stopped me but what they did is they dissuaded other people from following up on this story.
And to this day, that story, which seems like a huge story – it is a huge story – the story is that the entire privacy community, the biggest most famous privacy activists in the world, are subsidised and financed by the American national security state. The same forces they’re claiming to fight on the internet. No one has followed up on that story to the day. It’s been now, almost like four years since I started reporting on this. And no one really ran with it, no one has written an article about it, its kind of amazing. So that stuff works, it does work.
So the internet can be this democratising force but it’s also pretty easy to control it because the forces that you’re fighting against, these intelligence agencies, these giant corporations with unlimited budgets, they have a lot more resources to throw at you to shut you down and silence you in all these different ways.
And so meanwhile they have also a lot of resources to spread their own version of reality and their own version of the truth, so there’s a duality to these technologies for sure.
As to the point you just mentioned I thought it was really interesting looking at the stuff about Russian bots and so on and the Huawei controversy lately as well, it seems to me there’s an element of projection from the American security state – in terms of you know, we’re accusing these Chinese companies of spying and so on. But what do we know, we have got evidence that you are, that the Five Eyes is, but we have no evidence that so and so is – they may well be doing it but all the accusations that are levied tend to be true of America and Britain for example.
Look, I think it is a pretty naked geopolitical struggle. You want to control the communication infrastructure meaning that you want to be able to control the physical routers, the switches, the wires that are carrying telecommunications around the world. And with China now getting into this in a big way I think what America and Britain don’t want to do is give up that power to China. So they’re hounding – I think Australia recently just cancelled a contract for 5G technologies on national security grounds, because you know what you can do with that stuff.
Of course I’m sure that china is going to be doing exactly the same thing that the US is doing which is putting in back doors to these things and putting in their own taps to the infrastructure that carries information globally.
Obviously everyone spies, and if they can they project their power in any way that they can. In this case it’s obvious except no one really talks about it that way.
But if you take a step back and look at it it’s clearly a geopolitical sea of influence kind of struggle in the modern world.
What’s interesting is that the British Empire, as far as I know all telegraph communications went through London. All the wires – they didn’t go from colony to colony directly, they went to London. So London was this kind of central clearing house for this information which allowed it to control power that way and centralise power and make sure that nothing happened off its radar. Even with such a simple technology as a telegraph.
If you just take that case and extrapolate it to a much more complicated telecommunications system that we have but it’s still pretty much the same thing. You want to be able to have access to these technologies, to the companies that produce them and have secret agreements with them and all these things, that’s going to be harder if China is doing manufacturing.
But what’s interesting is – the flip side of that is weird, because even as the US is trying to battle China for control of 5G infrastructure and making sure that American companies or western companies control it rather than Chinese companies, at the same time all of our devices – the phone I’m talking to you on right now, whatever you’re using on the other end there, is made in China.
We have completely outsourced the industrial production of our telecommunications devices completely to china. so you have got to wonder. It’s such a weird and schizophrenic relationship that’s happening here because there’s always the possibility that there’s some kind of way of China putting something in these phones or putting something in these devices… who knows? Maybe they have some kind of super-duper spy technology that no one is even aware of. There was a big article about that – I think it was in Bloomberg.
Bloomberg, I read that but – there were calls fora retraction after that as well right?
Basically what it is is to me is it showed this strange national security fear while at the same time there’s a split personality that’s going on. On the one hand you have the national security state that’s freaking out about China, but how serious is it if every electronic device we use now is made in China?
On the one hand you have this foe, that if a company like Google works a little bit with China to develop some kind of search engine that might filter or censor some results, it gets bashed and demonised for working with this totalitarian government.
Yet, every major business in America has outsourced its production to China and including the stuff that’s connected to the internet and makes up the internet.
So it’s a totally insane world where we’re fighting china supposedly yet empowering China, and also giving it all these different ways of potentially implanting spy technology in our devices
OK, we don’t know if it’s happening or not, but the fact that it’s possible – you can’t say that it’s not possible.
There was a really interesting talk I went to from the CSIS, which is the Kissinger sponsored think tank, they had a China expert there and she was observing that the Chinese model, the Chinese cyber security law that recently came through was in many ways based on GDPR and was much stricter about what the Chinese companies are allowed to know about the citizens so it’s almost reversed, there’s a lot of strict laws about the data companies can hold about Chinese citizens but obviously there’s easy ways to access that data if the government wants to.
One thing I find interesting about all this is we’ve heard a lot about the ‘Balkanisation’ of the internet mostly from American companies – we’ve got to have this homogeneous global access to data and the free flow of data and blah blah blah. But as soon as that hegemony is challenged by a company like Huawei or Kaspersky in Russia right, it’s all about carving it up… no, no, no, we meant the American firms.
To me what it is is, look – it’s like the talk about the free market. The idea is it’s free only if we get to dictate the terms, and we are the ones who are in power and we control what the terms are of global trade.
It’s the same thing for the internet. Everything is graded so the internet is an engine of freedom, the internet is an engine of democracy, it’s totally not connected to American hegemony or American empire right, it’s totally disconnected. It’s just this nice and abstract force for good.
Unless, that same force of good somehow impedes our ability to make money or worries us in some way.
Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State was architect of, or the face of this thing called ‘internet freedom’, this programme which essentially said if you are a country and you do anything to regulate the internet and you have your own sovereign laws and ideas about what should or shouldn’t be allowed on the internet, we are going to do everything in our power to destabilise you and make you reverse course to make you completely open up the internet again.
Internet imperialism, right?
But it was couched in this language of freedom and democracy, and that the internet is a global square – a public square where everybody can come and have an opinion and all this stuff.
She was the architect of that. And that policy is still in effect in America, for foreign policy.
Meanwhile, as soon as the internet was used to basically bash her and she lost the election, she blamed it on the internet, and on the undemocratic abuse of the internet, and vowed that we needed to put controls on the internet, that we need to hunt down all these people who released all these emails about her. The trolls, and the disinformation.
Suddenly now she wants to regulate the internet, she wants to bring these companies like Facebook and Google to heel so they’re much more in line with American interests, and that they’re working to defend American interests from outside malicious forces.
So her rhetoric on this stuff, did a U-turn, she turned 180 degrees on this, which goes to show that the internet is geopolitical technology. It has been from the very beginning, when it was much more overtly tied to the military, and was this command communication system in the 60s and 70s. It still remains that but of course the internet is now this commercial platform.
But regardless of that, the internet is still a geopolitical technology. It has geopolitics to it. And so whoever controls this technology, whoever controls the platforms, it’s their tool suddenly right?
Kaspersky is a great example of that.
You have this pretty good antivirus company and a great cybersecurity company, it’s very respected in the industry. and yet because its a Russian company that makes it immediately suspect, that makes it immediately suspicious, because whose interests does it actually represent? Does it represent the interests of its clients who it’s working for or does it actually represent a deeper interest of the Russian state and the Russian government?
The fact that that emerged just goes to show you that the internet is geopolitical. And internet companies that process data that control data are geopolitical. Because access to data is power.
So that’s why he got squeezed out of the business, even though Kaspersky offered to completely open its source code to the US government so they can analyse it and go through it and make sure they’re not doing anything sneaky with it – they’re not sending a copy to Putin… which they might!
There was a recent article wasn’t there somewhere where it detailed how Kaspersky sold someone out to the NSA as a ‘you can trust us’ look someone’s leaked stuff to us – we can identify who they are, here’s proof.
So obviously Kaspersky is a smart businessman so he understands that if you fuck with America and you cross America you are going to lose business. The west is a big source of money for the company. But who knows what’s actually happening on a deeper level? He might also be sharing that information with Russian intelligence agencies. It’s possible because it is based in Russia, it’s a Russian company. It falls under the jurisdiction of Russian laws, people who work for Kaspersky are Russian, they fall under the jurisdiction. There are a lot of pressure points there, just like there are a lot of pressure points for American companies, who pretend like they’re not an appendage of the American state but in reality they are.
So the internet is not being Balkanised, but it’s slightly returning to what should be a normal order of things… that an internet platform that is an American internet platform is seen as an American company, it’s seen as an agent of American power in some way and treated accordingly.
That’s a normal state of affairs in a world where you have these nation states competing against each other for resources and for power.
And as American empire retreats and is challenged on all these different fronts around the world the internet kind of retracts with it and that’s what’s happening. Not by a lot – it’s not like the internet is receding or something – but the Balkanisation that they talk about is actually a check I think on American global power. In reality, that’s what the Balkanisation is.
That’s a very interesting point. I’ve got a few more questions for you and feel free to keep them super brief if you want because I know we’re coming up to an hour. I remember reading an article in Exile about the rebranding of libertarians – it’s hip it’s cool it’s libertarianism – these leather-jacket wearing propagandists for the free market. And similarly I thought that techno-utopian thinking is still rampant. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why that swindle, the idea that these people are outliers and outsiders, why that’s persisted so much.
Well we kind of live in the backwash of boomer culture, 1960s culture, and the internet is very much a product of the 1960s. And the branding of the internet, the packaging of the internet comes out of that culture. And so it’s not surprising that it uses these images – almost like 1960s radicals who are bucking the system or creating their own digital communes or their own world, telling old traditional politics to take a hike and creating a new utopian world for themselves… I think it’s dying in a big way. Just like the startup culture, the glorification of these plucky entrepreneurs that are out to change the world…
It hasn’t disappeared but it’s almost disappeared. You don’t really see it anymore. Partially because these startups are now these giant corporations, these giant monopolies that gobble up everything in sight. But the image of the internet entrepreneur as a 1960s radical, it’s a story that I tell in my book, in part this has emerged because the internet came out of that culture to some degree.
There are these parallel developments – a lot of people working on the internet were living in the Bay Area, interacted with the commune movement and the hippie culture, and they saw themselves as kind of if not a part of it at least spiritually connected to it.
I thought the history on Wired was really interesting, I was amazed that they ran a front cover with some hard-right Republican dressed as Mad Max because he was taking on regulators, that really stuck with me.
It’s crazy, but look – Rolling Stone, ran a cover story… god what year was it, its got to be like 1973 or 1974, I don’t remember the exact year. But Rolling Stone had a big piece by this guy Stuart Brand, who was like this kind of hippy – he ran this hippie lifestyle magazine called Whole Earth Catalog that was a huge inspiration to Steve Jobs, he was a big fan of that. And even Jeff Bezos modelled in a way Amazon on this catalogue-slash-lifestyle-magazine for hippies in the commune movement.
He was this radical, he was hanging out with the Merry Pranksters and Ken Kesey, he was dropping acid, he was in that big psychedelic yellow bus they took across America. He put on the first San Francisco concert for the Grateful Dead so he was deep inside this hippie Haight Ashbury culture in the Bay Area, Stuart Brand. And he was very close to a lot of the people who worked for ARPA, this counterinsurgency R&D lab for the Pentagon. He was totally just friends with them and hung out with them, and he did this big piece for Rolling Stone profiling these ARPA contractors, these military contractors who were building the internet, who were tinkering with this early artificial intelligence. He made them out to be these grand heroes, these radicals, these rebels, these bearded cyber-hippies who were even more radical than the people who were out there protesting against the war or engaged with civil rights activism or whatever. He saw them as being the true heirs of like, some kind of – a new world. Not heirs, but the initiators of a totally new and radical world where they were not trying to reform the system and work within it, in this corrupt old political system, but creating a whole new world.
So he wrote this big piece for Rolling Stone. And if you read it, it’s shocking: because you have people who are working for the Pentagon directly being branded as, being sold to all these suburban kids who are reading Rolling Stone, as radicals, and as the true heroes of the counter culture.
And the fact that you have Rolling Stone running a very similar sounding profile of someone like Jacob Appelbaum, one of the people behind the face of the Tor Project and this movement to encrypt everything, the guy who’s sort of third in line under – there’s the trinity right, three levels of activists – there’s Edward Snowden there’s Julian Assange and there’s Jacob Appelbaum.
Who was super close according to the book.
Jacob Appelbaum tried to ingratiate himself to Julian Assange and became his right-hand man for a while, they partied together and did all sorts of cool stuff together. But obviously Julian Assange and Jacob Appelbaum are on the out because of the allegations of harassment and rape against them. But he was a huge celebrity, an internet culture celebrity. and you have Rolling Stone running a profile of him while he’s drawing a six-figure salary from a military contractor, as a true radical for democracy on the internet.
And you have Stuart brand who did a story 40 years earlier that was doing a very similar thing and talking about these military contractors in a similar way. And so you look at it, and you’re like wait we haven’t really moved very far from that culture, all the cultural tropes that we use, the way that we envision people, and the way that our culture describes people, it still lives in that world that’s almost 50 years old.
It’s not relinquishing its power very quickly, very willingly, it’s going to take us to the grave I think that culture.