Ever since the gag order imposed on Ben Zygier’s existence was rendered ridiculous by the ruckus on social networks, whoops of victory have been heard. “It is a new era,” pundits crow. “The genie can't be stuffed back into the bottle,” they boast. The revolution won’t be broadcast on television or reported in the newspaper, but will be disseminated by online streaming, the geeks preen.
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The only problem is – the facts. Let's look at them. One day a man existed. The next day he didn't exist any more. A man was wiped off the face of the planet without leaving a trace. Two months later this invisible man committed suicide in his prison cell, and no investigation ensued (then), because how can a nonexistent man's suicide be probed?
Two years later a television station in Australia – establishment media, mind you – revealed the circumstances of his death. And then the Internet woke up.
Similar declarations of victory, which Belarusian-American journalist Evgeny Morozov calls “cyber-optimism,” also appeared after the Arab Spring exploded. Then, too, Western journalists celebrated the ability of the Internet to foment revolution, to stymie censorship and enable people to organize and together topple oppressive regimes.
The same declarations of brave-new-world were heard in 2010, when WikiLeaks exposed hundreds of thousands of secret documents connected to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the biggest leak of classified material in history.
On all those occasions learned commentators and Internet zealots went into raptures about how any moment now the revolution is coming, glory be, in fact it has already begun.
Yet meanwhile, next week Bradley Manning, the American soldier who sent the classified documents to WikiLeaks, will mark his 1,000th day in prison.
During the course of his detention, Manning has experienced treatment that according to Juan Mendez, a special observer on behalf of the United Nations for matters of torture, was “cruel, inhuman and degrading."
Last month, Manning’s request to explain why he leaked the documents - his motive - was rejected, in a legal tactic that has become known as “the whistleblower defense.”
Since United States President Barack Obama took office, the American administration has embarked on an “unprecedented attack” on whistleblowers and leakers in Washington and in the American government system – and this claim doesn’t come from an anti-war organization or an activist in the hacking "organization" Anonymous. It comes from Peter Van Buren, formerly a top State Department official, who told this to the site Salon.com this month.
Since Obama became president, the Justice Department has filed twice as many espionage indictments against American leakers than all past American administrations put together.
Chess master makes strategic mistake
One defendant who has suffered from the strong arm of the Obama administration is Thomas Drake, formerly a top official at the National Security Agency. Drake is a mathematician and chess genius who revealed to The Baltimore Sun what he considered the illegal surveillance methods used at the NSA.
Though Drake has not gone to prison, his career and his life have been ruined. Now he's working at an Apple store.
Last month that same war against leakers led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz, founder of Reddit and an Internet activist. Swartz, 26, hanged himself ahead of his trial for hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers and “liberating” millions of academic articles he intended to publish.
MIT claims it was prepared to forgo charges against Swartz but the administration insisted. Maybe that's because before his death Swartz, a veteran fighter for individual rights, requested reports on the conditions of Manning’s imprisonment, under the American Freedom of Information Act.
Andrew Auernheimer is another victim of the American onslaught on Internet activists. He came from the same world as Swartz, but from the other side. Though both of them were activists, Auernheimer was the diametric opposite of the educated, liberal Swartz, who was a millionaire Internet activist and entrepreneur.
In contrast to Swartz, who tried to “liberate” important information to the public and won the adulation of the international media for that, Auernheimer and other hackers exploited holes in the security of the AT&T system. They revealed email addresses and personal information of 114,000 iPad users, among them celebrities and military and government people.
Auernheimer, who was better known by his handle Weev, leaked the details to the media site Gawker. His intention was to embarrass AT&T and expose flaws in the company’s system. He is now facing as much as 10 years in prison after having been convicted of conspiring to break into a computer without permission, even though according to him he never hacked into any computer but rather obtained the details from a database that was in the public domain.
Rummaging through Facebook
The Swartz and the Auernheimer cases reveal the big lie behind the belief in the Internet utopia.
Just when we thought the Arab Spring, and protests in Israel and on Wall Street, represented a new kind of popular democracy, a force born of the freedom brought through Internet into the real world – the reality was the opposite.
As the people used increasingly sophisticated tools for civil struggle, governments too were refining their tools for following, censoring, controlling and manipulating. Not only has the war for freedom of information not been won, it is still raging – and we are losing.
In the two years that have elapsed since the Manning leak, WikiLeaks has evaporated entirely as a significant player in the world media, in part thanks to the legal troubles of its founder Julian Assange.
In the United States, the government’s attack on Internet activists like Swartz and Auernheimer has led Swartz into suicide and others into hiding. And in Russia – not that this should come as a surprise to anyone – the new censorship law enables the government to take down or block access to any site at all on the grounds that it is “harmful to children.”
In his book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Morozov – a regular writer for newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian – has criticized western reporters and commentators for their excitement regarding freedom on the Internet in the wake of the Arab Spring. He compared it to the overdone excitement in the west in the 1990s as the Soviet Union imploded.
To the same extent that the Internet enables freedom, Morozov warns, it also enables an unprecedented level of surveillance, control and manipulation.
Oppressive regimes can use Facebook, too
Despite the repeated declarations about how the Internet is by its nature a liberating force, the regimes in Iran and China are more stable and oppressive than ever. In those countries, social networks have done more to serve the regimes that suppress, than they have spurred young people to topple the regimes.
When we focus on the "liberating power" of Internet and rely on Internet to solve problems that have not been solved in “the real world,” argues Mozorov, we are ignoring the fact that the Internet is not only a tool for revolutionaries – but rather also, and perhaps mainly, a tool for governments that want to repress them.
In no period of human history have there been more eyes watching our behavior.
In no period of human history has it even easier to manipulate the population or to keep track of citizens’ behavior.
Those who prefer to see the Internet as a fundamentally good tool, the “cyber-optimists” as Mozorov dubs them, have in fact given up on the war.
For when we talk about how thanks to Twitter we know about Ben Zygier’s suicide, we are ignoring the fact that the government’s means for silencing the matter were so successful that we know about the incident only two years after it occurred.
Nor are we talking about the government’s ability to “disappear” a person so easily, precisely in an era in which are leaving innumerable digital fingerprints behind us, without anyone noticing.
Also, dear reader, the story didn’t break on Twitter or Facebook. The story broke on a traditional television network and not even an Israeli network at that, but rather an Australian network.
And we certainly aren’t talking about the unknown number of other Prisoners X who are still languishing – without an identity – in secret prison facilities around the world and in Israel. We are mainly patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves for the victory in a war, a war we are losing.
Not tired of your power yet? No?
American journalist Heather Brooke, whose claim to fame was the 2009 revelations of insane expense accounts by British parliamentarians, does not agree with Mozorov. Brooke, who in 2011 published her book “The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Dispatches form the Information War,” has kept track of Wikileaks and efforts by other web activists to fight surveillance.
In contrast to Mozorov, she believes that the censorship attempts and the persecution of activists are only a desperate reaction on the part of the government.
No one gives up power just like that, willingly, she explains, and if anything by their behavior governments are showing that they're terrified. The United States, which was always the home of rebels, has become a police state in which everyone has to obey, she says. Every challenge to the establishment, even the silliest, is trampled disproportionately. Why should they react with such violence if they aren’t scared?
Meanwhile, the law is outdated. The police need a warrant to search a home but the government doesn’t need a warrant in order to rummage in one's Facebook account, Brooke points out.
However, Brooke does agree with Morozov about one thing: The Internet is not a liberator of nations by its nature.
"Technology has no morality,” she says. “It depends on how it is used. If we decide we don’t care and it’s okay for the state to keep us under surveillance, the Internet will become one huge surveillance apparatus."
But the people can change things, and for that they need to understand this, says Brooke: The system is based on intimidation, and nobody's going to fight the little man's war for him.