We first met at Evil Genius camp where we came to pitch our tents, huddle around the campfire, and hatch secret plots to use technology for world liberation. The year was 2002, when global justice activism was still at a fevered pitch, when anything seemed possible and everything was urgent.
I met Blaine on the first day of camp. Sunburned, young, and whip smart, he and I quickly bonded while discussing the finer points of secure communication. Five years later, we would both leave our tech collectives. I started graduate school, and Blaine became the lead architect of Twitter.
I recently asked my friend the awkward question I have been avoiding: How do you reconcile your prior life building secure alternatives for activists with your later career creating a powerful tool for surveillance? His reply can be distilled into three points. First, the explosion of surveillance data is too voluminous and complex to make much sense of. Second, if corporations start to use this data, it will creep people out too much. Finally, in the long run, monolithic social networking sites are doomed and will eventually be replaced with open protocols that allow the Internet itself to become the social network.
If Blaine is wrong, the consequences for social movements could be severe. I lack his confidence for a simple reason: you need to follow the money. When Internet services became free, the business model became surveillance. Like many things, the right-wing says it most plainly. Adam Thierer of the CATO Institute has attacked advocates of privacy protections, who “seem to be under the impression that all these free Internet services and innovations fall to us like manna from heaven,” on the grounds that these advocates don’t realize their proposed safeguards “would completely undercut the Internet’s primary economic engine: targeted advertising.” The term “targeted advertising” is a polite euphemism for the increasingly complex dossiers detailing our habits and social connections.
How did we get here? Since the 1970s, the post-Fordist turn toward high-value added “information economy” created strong demand for global telecommunications systems. These systems finally culminated in the Internet, once they were able to talk with one another. The infrastructure required by information production also created a crisis: digital data could be perfectly copied endlessly, and packet switched networks made global, decentralized distribution nearly free. Suddenly, any data that was sufficiently popular became very difficult to contain. Somewhere on the Internet you could obtain it for free, or someone was competing against you by giving away a similar product that was “good enough”.
Into the ensuing mayhem of dot com bubbles and intellectual property wars burst a generation of Internet boosters with a simple message: the Internet is entirely unlike systems of mass production. Rather than the passive recipients of product, Internet users give information value. A pivotal moment came in 2005 when Tim O’Reilly summarized these new principles in “What is Web 2.0” Although long simmering, ideas such as the wisdom of crowds, the network effect, interoperability, collective intelligence, and emergent patterns became inescapable parlance in Silicon Valley. Open protocols and the free exchange of information are central to this new way of thinking.
In this free and open online world, there are limited possibilities for securing profit. A company can fight the trend, pursuing a small market of information that does not have wide appeal. More often, companies have turned to business models of freemium or behavioral surveillance. In a freemium model, content is given away to most, while you charge a small number of enthusiasts for the “premium” product. In a behavioral surveillance model, the user’s habits and social connections become the valuable commodity generated by the company. Behavioral surveillance works when it is seductive, fun, and when the profile generated seems to the user to be of value to them, not simply of value to the advertisers. For example, merely based on my past habits, Amazon contacts me whenever a new book on surveillance is released.
In many ways, Twitter’s simplicity represents a distillation of these trends toward free and open. At its heart, Twitter is perhaps the closest approximation yet of Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Once one attains literacy and internet access, Twitter minimizes the costs and barriers to communication as much as possible, and maximizes potential for communication. Unexpectedly, the haiku-like constraint of 140 characters contributes to its accessibility. The time to write and read a normal length missive has turned out to be significant barrier to communication, a barrier that Twitter has defiantly smashed.
However, like much of the new social media, Twitter is a Janus faced beast, one face gazing toward a future frontier of unfettered communication, and the other looking toward the past, mining the treasure of stored historical data. From a social movement perspective, Twitter offers powerful tools for getting the word out, but it also can expose our inner workings. The two faces belong to the same head, and are difficult to disentangle.
I am not interested in privacy. For social movements, the problem is not a collapse of privacy but an explosion of surveillance. Storage is cheap. The detailed profiles and maps of our interconnections need never be thrown away. Not only is this a fundamental reordering of the relations of power between individual and corporation, this infrastructure of behavioral surveillance, once in place, can easily be re-purposed for state repression. As Chris Calabrese of the ACLU put it, “the private sector has become an enormous multiplier of the surveillance power of the state.” This is not limited to the US. As the case of Iran demonstrates, the re-purposing of systems of “Lawful Intercept” can turn open systems into systems of state surveillance.
Eventually, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world may be dethroned and replaced by provider-agnostic protocols, in much the same way AOL is no longer synonymous with email. However, no one is going to build protocols that threaten their bottom line. So long as “free” is paid for by surveillance, the Internet will represent a Faustian bargain for radical social movements.