Internet

US cross-border data deal could open surveillance floodgates

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/09/2017 - 5:30pm in

Internet users should assess whether their
domestic system would adequately prevent their government from abusing the
arrangement, and whether local law enforcement can be held accountable.

Edward Snowden, a former CIA worker before turning whistleblower, speaks via satellite at the IT fair CeBIT in Hanover, Germany, 21 March 2017. Friso Gentsch/Press Association. All rights reserved.In July 2016, the United States Department
of Justice released a legislative proposal
that could vastly increase surveillance by other governments with the direct
assistance of Silicon Valley. The unprecedented proposal would allow certain
governments to demand the contents of Internet communications such as e-mails
and chats directly from US companies, rather than going through cross-border law
enforcement treaties that have long been in place to protect rights. The US has
already negotiated the outlines of such a deal with the United Kingdom and the Justice
Department proposal would extend it to other governments. The US has already negotiated the outlines of
such a deal with the United Kingdom.

This development should raise alarm bells
for any user of US-based Internet companies such as Google or Facebook. If
enacted, privacy safeguards will get much weaker, collection much broader, and
private information potentially more widely shared, since governments will have
increased access to user communications. While the legislative proposal generally
conditions this access on a government’s general respect for human rights, it
falls short of ensuring that rights will be adequately protected.

The proposal was introduced on September 14
in the US Congress as an amendment to a defense spending bill, and may be introduced
in stand-alone legislation later this year.

The rationale

Under current US law, Internet companies
are prohibited from turning over the contents of communications directly to
foreign governments, even for investigating crime. Instead, law enforcement
agencies outside the US must make requests through Mutual Legal Assistance
Treaties (MLATs), with the Justice Department and US judges serving as
intermediaries between the requesting government and the company that holds the
information.

As a byproduct of this process, the US
extends the same strong constitutional privacy protections enjoyed by US
citizens to surveillance targets outside the US. These protections have long
promoted respect for rights in criminal investigations, despite the US reputation
for excessive surveillance in the intelligence context.

Under this system, the requesting authority
must convince a judge that there is “probable cause
the search will elicit evidence of a crime. This is a high standard. The requesting
government has to put forward specific facts – and not just a hunch or belief –
that demonstrate the communications sought are likely to be evidence of criminal
activity. The request must also specifically describe the evidence sought,
preventing governments from speculative ‘fishing’ for evidence of crime.

An impartial and independent judge must
authorize the warrant and the US government also strips out communications that
aren’t relevant to the request, all prior to disclosure. Finally, some treaties
limit how the information may be used. While the MLAT process isn’t as
transparent as it should be, it is rigorous and protective of rights – often
more so than the domestic law of requesting governments. The request must also specifically describe
the evidence sought, preventing governments from speculative ‘fishing’.

Law enforcement agencies in the UK and
elsewhere have become increasingly frustrated with this process, which can be
slow. One 2013 review
found that it takes an average of 10 months to fulfill a government request. This
tortoise-like pace is not intrinsic to the process, which can be very quick for
US authorities seeking warrants. The US has devoted insufficient resources to the
process, leading to a large backlog, with the number of requests only increasing.
Also, with US standards more rigorous than those in many requesting countries, requesting
authorities must often devote more resources to gather evidence to meet them.

In response, the UK has claimed that they
can extend their surveillance orders “extraterritorially
to Internet companies outside their borders to bypass this process. This places
companies in the awkward position of deciding whether to comply with UK
warrants in violation of US law. Major US Internet companies have also said
that foreign governments’ frustration with the process is leading to calls for data
localization worldwide
, which would force
companies to store user data locally in territories where they offer services,
or even arrest
of employees.

US companies believe that the Justice
Department proposal would prevent this parade of horribles and are actively
supporting
the government’s move. Whether it would do so is an open question. But the
proposal also means eliminating rights protections for many users outside the
US.

The
proposal

The proposal would allow qualifying
countries to request the contents of communications directly from US companies,
bypassing the MLAT process, for the investigation of undefined “serious crime.”
The proposal actually goes beyond the existing system since it would allow
governments to demand real-time wiretapping from US tech companies for the
first time. But the requirements governments would have to meet fall
well short
of what international human
rights law
requires of the US and its partners—that an independent
authority consider whether, in each individual case, the request is necessary
and proportionate and subject to challenge and redress. It would allow governments to demand real-time
wiretapping from US tech companies for the first time.

For a government to qualify, the US would
have to negotiate a bilateral agreement with the country and certify that it
has “robust substantive and procedural protections for privacy and civil
liberties.” But the proposal only lists “factors to be considered,” not firm
requirements. The factors include whether the country generally has respect for
the rule of law and human rights and “sufficient mechanisms to provide
accountability and appropriate transparency” for surveillance.

This blanket determination is far weaker
than the case-by-case judicial authorization that the current process requires,
and it overlooks the fact that the authorities of any country – no matter how
well intentioned – may make mistakes or overreach. It also makes the
certification process vulnerable to politics, where the US might ignore serious
abuses to certify key allies. The
US might ignore serious abuses to certify key allies.

Once a country is certified and an
agreement is in place, its law enforcement agencies could request stored communications
or real-time wiretaps directly from US companies. Generally, those requests
would be subject to the country’s own domestic procedures and standards, although
the proposal would require them to ensure there is a “reasonable justification
based on articulable and credible facts.” The meaning of that standard remains
unclear, though it appears to be less than “probable cause.” The proposal
doesn’t compel companies to comply, though the requesting government may try to
do so. If a company denies a request, the government can resubmit its order
through the usual MLAT process.

Under the proposal, requesting governments
would have to subject requests to undefined “review or oversight” by an
independent authority, but officials would not have to seek prior judicial authorization. Such
review could also be generalized rather than specific to each request. This is
a major weakness since the current system requires an independent examination
by a US judge of the justification for the request (and the potential impact on
rights) before disclosure.

Many of the proposal’s terms are undefined,
and it is unclear how they will be interpreted and applied under vastly
different legal systems. For example, the proposal requires requesting
governments to specify a “person, account, address, or personal device” to
target, which in theory might deter some sweeping data requests. In practice,
however, a single request could involve disproportionate amounts of data,
depending on how specific provisions are defined. For example, an “address”
could be interpreted to include an “Internet Protocol address,” which could be
shared by thousands of computers. The onus will be on the requesting government
to “segregate” non-relevant information. Finally, the proposal does not require governments to
provide notice to surveillance targets.

Finally, the proposal does not require governments
to provide notice to surveillance targets. Yet notice is a critical human
rights protection that enables individuals to seek redress for surveillance
abuses. Participating countries are also allowed to share information collected
under this regime with the US and other governments in some circumstances.

Impact
on user rights

Agreements negotiated under the proposed
framework would undoubtedly lead to far more user information flowing from US
Internet companies to the UK and other governments than under the current process.

The proposal would protect US companies
from liability for complying with requests made in “good faith.” This removes
incentives for companies to scrutinize or deny such requests, given other legal
or political pressures they may face from requesting governments.

For users outside the US, the proposal’s
shift of human rights scrutiny from US courts back to the institutions of the
requesting country means the impact on privacy and other rights depends first
and foremost on whether their country’s laws are more protective than the
current MLAT system. In the UK, the protections are weaker. In the UK, the protections are weaker.

The US government contends that the new
system would encourage other countries to reform their own surveillance laws to
qualify for speedier access to data held by US firms. But whether that is
likely depends on political interests of both the US and the participating
government. What countries may qualify – or could qualify with some reforms – is
uncertain. The draft agreement appears designed to require no changes to UK law,
which Edward Snowden described
as legalizing “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western
democracy.” From conversations with companies and other stakeholders, Brazil
and India may also be on a desired short list for data sharing under the
proposal. The draft agreement
appears designed to require no changes to UK law, which Edward Snowden described as legalizing “the most extreme
surveillance in the history of western democracy.”

People in countries like Brazil or India should
decide whether they are willing to trade privacy protections provided by the current
MLAT system for some hazy incentive to improve domestic laws. The proposal’s
criteria fall short of international human rights law, including the Necessary and
Proportionate Principles
, which would likely limit any reforms, even if a
government were willing to change its laws.

Finally, there is a question of
accountability. The MLAT system subjects users’ rights to standards their own
governments did not enact, under a process they cannot contest. This is not
ideal, yet it manages to provide strong protections for people outside the US. The
new proposal would simply remove many of these protections and defer to the
participating government’s domestic processes, which may be even more opaque
and unaccountable.

Internet users should assess whether their
domestic system would adequately prevent their government from abusing the
arrangement, and whether local law enforcement can be held accountable, given
how much more data would be available to them under the deal.

What
alternative?

The US should adequately fund the current
process so that government requests can be properly reviewed in a timely way. The
US could also streamline
the MLAT process, for example, creating a standardized online system for
requests that would not require weakening rights protections. Both technology companies
and the US should prioritize these solutions before pursuing a proposal that
could allow a potentially vast expansion of surveillance, with lower safeguards.
Any cross-border data request
proposal should strengthen privacy protections and improve human rights accountability,
not merely shift the burden to systems that have fewer protections.  

To be truly viewed as an improvement, any cross-border
data request proposal should strengthen privacy protections and improve human
rights accountability, not merely shift the burden to systems that have fewer
protections. The current proposal doesn’t come close to achieving this.

Country or region: 

United States

UK

Topics: 

Civil society

Conflict

Culture

Democracy and government

International politics

Internet

Rights: 

CC by NC 4.0

Pat Mills Talks to Sasha Simic of the SWP about the Politics of 2000AD

This comes from the Socialist Workers’ Party, an organization of which I am not a member and which I don’t support. But this is another really great video, in which one of the great creators of the British comics for over forty years talks about politics, social class, the role of capitalism and women and feminism, not just in 2000AD, but also in comics and publishing generally, and the media.

Mills was speaking as part of annual four day convention the Socialist Workers hold on Marxism. Simic introduces himself as the person, who gets the annual geek slot. As well as a member of the party, he’s also a convener of USDAW. And he’s very happy in this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to have on Pat Mills.

Mills starts by saying that as he was growing up in the 50s and 60s, he read the same books everyone else did – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But there was something about it that made him angry, and it was only looking back on it that he came to realise that what infuriated him was the fact that these were all authors from the upper and middle classes, who created heroes from those class backgrounds. He makes the point that these were good writers, but that some of their work was very sinister the more you go into it. Like John Buchan. Buchan was the major propagandist of the First World War. Mills says that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, had nothing on him. He promoted the First world War, for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada.
He states that he doesn’t want to go too far into it as he’ll start ranting. Nevertheless, he’s glad to be able to talk to the people at the SWP’s convention, as it means they have a similar opinion to him, and he doesn’t have to censor himself.

He makes the point that there are very, very few working class heroes, and believes this is quite deliberate. It’s to deprive working people of a strong role. When the working people do appear, it’s as loyal batmen, or sidekicks, and there is an element of parody there. And it’s not just in comics and literature. In the 1980s he was contacted by the producers of Dr. Who to do a story. He wanted to have a working class spaceship captain. He was told by the script editor that they couldn’t. They also didn’t like his idea to have a working class family. It was only by looking back on where this hatred of the heroes of traditional literature came from, that he came to realise that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to have any generals in his work.

He also talks about how it’s easier to get away with subversion in comics, as comics are treated as a trivial form of literature, which nobody really cares about. The profit motive also helps. So long as it’s making money, comics companies don’t care what’s going on. And this explains how he was able to get away with some of the things he did in Battle. He states that the way he works is by pretending to write something mainstream and inoffensive, and then subvert it from within. An example of that is Charley’s War in Battle. This looks like an ordinary war strip, but in fact was very anti-war. Even so, there were times when he had to be careful and know when to give up. One of these was about a story he wanted to run about the entry of the Americans into the War. In this story, a group of White American squaddies are members of the Klan, and try to lynch a Black soldier. Charley wades in to help the Black guy. The management rejected the story on the grounds that they didn’t want anything too controversial. Mills decided to draw in his horns and bite his tongue at that point, because he had a bigger story lined up about the British invasion of Russian in 1919, when we sent in 20-30,000 men. It was, he says, our Vietnam, and has been whitewashed out of the history books.

He also makes the point that subversion was also present in the girls’ comics. Even more so, as there was a psychological angle that wasn’t present in the boys’. For example, there was one story called ‘Ella in Easy Street’, where a young girl reacts against her aspirational family. They want to get on, and so the father has two jobs, and the mother is similarly working very hard to support their aspirations. But Ella herself is unhappy, as it’s destroying what they are as a family. And so she sets out to sabotage their yuppie dream. Mills says that it’s not all one-dimensional – he looks at the situation from both sides, pro and con, but the story makes the point that there are things that are more important that materialism and social advancement, like family, comradeship. He says that such a story could not be published now. It’s rather like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the hero, in the end, throws the race as a way of giving the system the finger.

Mills reminds his audience just how massive girls’ comics were in the ’70s. They were bigger, much bigger, than the boys’. 2000AD sold 200,000 copies a week in its prime. But Tammy, one of the girls’ comics, sold 260,000. This is really surprising, as women read much more than we men. These comics have all disappeared. This, he says, is because the boys’ took over the sandpit. He has been trying to revive them, and so a couple of stories from Misty have been republished in an album.

This gets him onto the issue of reaching the audience, who really need it. In the case of the stories from Misty, this has meant that there are two serials on sale, both of which are very good, but in a book costing £17 – odd. The only people going to read that are the mothers of the present generation of girls, perhaps. To reach the girls, it needs to be set at a lower price they can afford. This is also a problem with the political material. If you write something subversive, it will receive glowing reviews but be bought by people, who already agree with you. He wants his message to get further out, and not to become a coffee table book for north London.

He talks about the way British comics have grown up with their readership, and the advantages and disadvantages this has brought. British comics has, with the exception of 2000AD, more or less disappeared, and the readership of that comic is in its 30s and 40s. People have put this down to demographics and the rise of computer games, saying that this was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was our fault, says Mills. We fumbled it. Games workshop still have young people amongst their audience, while the French also have computer games across the Channel, but their children are reading comics.

Mills goes on to say that it’s easier writing for adults. Writing for 9 and 10 year olds is much harder, because if they don’t like a story, they’ll say. He says to his audience that they may think the same way, but they’re much too polite to say it at conventions. And they had to respond to their young readers as well, as the kids voted on it every week. They’d tell you if they thought it was a bad story, even if you thought it was the best one so far, and asked yourself what was wrong with the little sh*ts.

He also talks about how difficult it is to break into comics. He has friends, who have been trying for decades to get into 2000AD, and have been unsuccessful. His advice to people trying to do so is: don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s 2000AD. And this also effects text publishing. All the publishers have now been bought up, so that HarperCollins have the fingers in everything, such as Hodder and Stoughton. And their politics aren’t ours.

The way round this is to get into web publishing. Here he digresses and talks about pulp fiction, which is a close relative of comics. He was talking to a guy at a convention, who writes pulp fiction and puts it on the net. It only costs a few pence. The man writes about a zombie apocalypse, but – and this is true, as he’s seen the payment slips – he’s pulling in £3,000 a month. Mills says that this is important as well. He wants to get his material out there, but he also wants to eat. This shows you how you can make money publishing it yourself. Later on in the video, after the questions and the comments from the audience, he goes further into this. He mentions some of the web publishers, one of which is subsidiary of Amazon, which will allow people to publish their own work. He also talks about self-publishing and chapbooks. He found out about these while writing Defoe, his story about Leveller zombie killer in an alternative 17th century England. Chapbooks were so called because they were cheap books, the cheap literature of the masses. And this is what comics should go back to. He says that everyone should produce comics, in the same way that everyone can also make music by picking up an instrument and playing a few chords.

He also praises some of the other subversive literature people have self-produced. Like one piece satirizing the British army’s recruitment posters. ‘Join the army’, it says, ‘- like prison, but with more fighting’. Mills is fairly sure he knows who wrote that as well. It was another guy he met at a convention, who was probably responsible for the anti-war film on YouTube Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. He enormously admires this film, and is envious of the people, who made it.

He also talks about some of the fan letters he’s had. One was from the CEO of a school, he talks about the way reading 2000AD opened up his mind and changed his moral compass. The man says that everything he learned about Fascism, he learned from Judge Dredd, everything about racism from Strontium Dog, and feminism from Halo Jones. He and his headmaster, whom he names, were both punks and he’s now opened a school in Doncaster. The most subversive thing you can do now is to try to create an open-minded and questioning generation of young people. The letter is signed, yours, from a company director, but not an evil one, and then the gentleman’s name.

He concludes this part of the talk by describing the career of James Clarke, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, a lion tamer and conscientious objector. During the War he ran escape lines for British squaddies in France. And people say that pacifists are cowards, Mills jokes. How much braver can you be than sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. He wrote a pamphlet defending a group of comrades, who tried to start the revolution by following the example of the Irish Nationalists and blow things up with a bomb. The pamphlet argued that this was wrong, and that if the working class wanted to gain power, they should concentrate on confronting capitalism through direct action. He also wrote poetry. Mills describes Clark as being a kind of Scots Tom Baker. One of these is a biting satire of Kipling’s If. The poem begins by asking if the reader can wake up every morning at 5 O’clock, or 4.30, and then labour at their machines, and see their wives and children suffer deprivation while those, who haven’t earned it take it all the profits, and describes the backbreaking grind of hard working life for the capitalist class in several stanzas. It ends with the statement that if you can do all that, and still be complacent, then go out, buy a gun and blow your brains out.

Clearly, I don’t recommend any actually do this, but it is a witty and funny response to Kipling’s poem. I found it hugely funny, and I do think it’s a great response to what was voted Britain’s favourite poem by the Beeb’s viewers and readers a few years ago. Can you imagine the sheer Tory rage that would erupt if someone dared to recite it on television!

Many of the comments are from people thanking Mills for opening their eyes and for writing such great stories. They include a man, who describes how Mills’ works are on his shelf next to his copy of Das Kapital. Another man describes how he used to buy 2000AD just after going to church on Sunday. So after listening to some very boring sermons, he came back from Baptist chapel to read all this subversion. One young woman says that the zines – the small press magazines, that appeared in the 1990s – seem to be still around, as she has seen them at punk concerts. Another young woman says that although comics are seen as a boys’ thing, when she goes into Forbidden Planet near her, there are always three girls in there and two boys. She also talks about how many young women read Japanese manga. Mills states in reply that manga stories generally are light and frothy, and so not the kind of stories he wants to write. But as for women in comics, he says that he spoken several times to students on graphic novel courses, and each time about 75 per cent of them have been women, which is good.

He also talks about Crisis and Action. The Third World War strip in Crisis was about the politics of food, and was set in a world where food production was dominated by a vast multinational formed by the merger of two of today’s megacorporations. Mills states that when the strip covered what was going on in South America, that was acceptable. However, at one point he moved the story to Brixton, finding a Black co-writer to help with the story. At that point, the White Guardian-reading liberals started to be uncomfortable with it. There was also a story in which Britain leaves the EU. This results in the rise of a Fascist dictatorship, and the EU responds by invading Britain. Mills says that he’s been trying to get Crisis relaunched, but the company are stringing him along with excuses, probably because it’s easier than arguing with him.

Mills obviously did the right thing by finding a Black co-writer. Marvel suffered a barrage of criticism with some of their attempts to launch a series of Black superheroes, like the Black Panther as part of the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Black Panther was particularly criticized. The creators were old, White dudes, who didn’t understand urban Black culture, even if the comics themselves were sincere in presenting a sympathetic view of Black Americans and combating racism.

He also talks briefly about Action, and the controversy that caused. What really upset Mary Whitehouse and the rest was ‘Kid’s Rule UK’, a strip in which a disease killed everyone over 16, and Britain was inhabited solely by warring street gangs. Mills used to take the same train from where he was living at the time with Mary Whitehouse. He said he was editing a Hookjaw script at the time, and notice Whitehouse over the other side of the carriage looking daggers at him. So he put in more carnage and more arms and legs being bitten off.

One of the most interesting questions is about the politics and morality of Judge Dredd. Dredd is a fascist, and in one of the strips it seemed to take the side of authority over subversion with no irony. This was in a story about the punks taking over Megacity 1. At the end of the strip, Dredd gets hold of the leader, and makes him say, ‘I’m a dirty punk.’ Mills actually agrees with the speaker, and says that there are people, who take Dredd as a role-model. He’s had letters from them, which he doesn’t like. He doesn’t know what these people do. Perhaps they have their own chapterhouse somewhere. He went cold inside when he heard about the story. It wasn’t one of his. It was by John Wagner, who isn’t at all political, but is very cynical, so this has some of the same effects of politics. But 75 per cent of Dredd comes from Mills. Mills states that it’s a flawed character, and that can be seen in why the two Dredd films never did well at the box office. Dredd was based on a particular teacher at his old school, as was Torquemada, the Grand Master of Termight, a genocidally racist Fascist military feudal order ruling Earth thousands of years in the future. They were both two sides of the same coin. That was why he enjoyed humiliating Torquemada. But it isn’t done with Dredd. Yet it could have been different, and there could be instances where people have their revenge on Dredd without losing the power of the character. He states that it was because Chopper did this in the story ‘Unamerican Graffiti’, that this became the favourite Dredd story of all time.

It’s a fascinating insight into the politics of the comics industry. The zines and other self-published small magazines he describes were a product of the Punk scene, where people did start putting together their own fanzines in their bedrooms. It was part of the mass creativity that punk at its height unleashed. As for the web comics, he talks about a couple that he finds particularly impressive, including those by the author of the dystopian science fiction story Y – the Last Man, set in a future in which all the men in the world have been killed by another disease. A number of my friends used to publish their own small press magazines in the 1990s, as did Mike. Mike started his own, small press comic, Violent, as an homage to Action when it was that comics anniversary. Mike was helped by some of the artists and writers from 2000AD, and so some of the tales are very professional. But probably not for delicate, gentle souls.

Amongst SF fandom, chapbooks are small books which another publishes himself. And they have been the route some professionally published authors have taken into print. Stephen Baxter is one of them. I think his Xelee stories first appeared in a chapbook he sold at one of the SF conventions.

Looking back at Kids Rule UK, this was my least favourite strip in Action. I was bullied at school, and so the idea of a Britain, where everything had broken down and there was nothing but bullying and juvenile violence really scared me. Action took many of its strips from the popular culture of the time. Hookjaw was basically Jaws. One-Eyed Jack seemed based very much on the type of hard-boiled American cop shows, if not actually Dirty Harry. One of the SF movies of the late sixties was about an America in which teenagers had seized power, and put all the adults in concentration camps were they were force-fed LSD. One of the four Star Trek stories that were banned on British television until the 1980s was ‘Miri’. In this tale, Kirk, Spock and the others beam down to a planet occupied entirely by children, as all the ‘grups’ – the adults – have been killed by disease. Kids Rule UK seems very much in the same vein as these stories.

Mills’ story about Dr. Who not wanting to show a working class family, let alone a spaceship captain, shows how far the series has come when it was relaunched by Russell T. Davis. Christopher Eccleston basically played the Doctor as northern and working class, wile Rose Tyler’s family and friends were ordinary people in a London tower block. As for not wanting to show a working class spaceship captain, that probably comes from very ingrained class attitudes in the aviation industry. A friend of mine trained as a pilot. When he was studying, their tutor told the class that the British exam included a question no other country in the world required, and which was particularly difficult. He stated that it was put there to weed out people from working or lower middle class backgrounds, as they would fail and not be able to retake the exam, as their competitors from the upper classes could.

It’s great to hear Mills encourage people try to produce their own work, and not be disheartened if they are rejected by mainstream publishers. I’m also saddened by the absence of any comics for children. They offered me when I was a lad an escape into a whole world of fun and imagination. And at their best, they do encourage children to take an interest in real issues like racism, sexism, bigotry and exploitation. I hope some way can be found to reverse their disappearance.

The end of anonymity? Trump and the tyranny of the majority

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/09/2017 - 6:26am in

Worldwide, there is an
administration-sanctioned attack on anonymity, online and off.

HRI

lead Protesters stand in solidarity with the "Native Nations Rise" march on Washington, D.C. against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Portland, Ore., on March 10, 2017.Alex Milan Tracy/Press Association. All rights reserved. Long
before the trickle of anonymous leaks from the White House became a steady downpour,
President Trump delivered a characteristically meandering address to the Conservative Political Action
Conference
, in
February this year. Tucked into a library catalogue of complaints (against
“bloodsucker consultants”, Obamacare and “bad dudes”) and compliments (for
miners, Bernie voters, border police, and “really strong and really good”
regulations), was a brief tirade against anonymous sources. “I’m against the
people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn’t be allowed to
use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put
out,” the President declared. “A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible,
horrible human being.  Let them say it to my face. Let there be no more
sources.”

The President’s remarks, and his subsequent sustained and
vitriolic attacks on the news media, reveal as much about the severity
of his personality flaws
as they do about his dangerous
disregard for an independent and pluralistic media
.
But they also suggested a more fundamental contestation of a key pillar of
democratic and human rights-respecting societies – the
right to anonymity.
 

Journalists’ entitlement to cite and defend anonymous
sources is guaranteed by international human rights law, under which the right
to freedom of expression guarantees all individuals the right to receive and
impart information. In the seminal case of Goodwin v The United Kingdom, the
European Court of Human Rights reasoned that if journalists are forced to
reveal their sources, the role of the press as a public watchdog would be
undermined.

In the digital age, however, it is not only journalists and
their sources who enjoy the right to anonymity. Alongside the dramatic
transformation of journalism and of the concepts of public transparency and
accountability that have accompanied recent technological changes, there has
been increasing recognition that ordinary people now create, as well as
consume, media. Through social media platforms, online forums, websites and
discussion boards, individuals receive and impart information in enjoyment of
their free expression rights. They may wish to avoid identification in doing
so, by using traditional means (such as adopting pseudonyms) or technical tools
(such as like VPNs or anonymising networks). In doing so, they are exercising their
right to anonymity, a key component of the tandem rights to freedom of expression
and to privacy, which are guaranteed to them under international
human rights law
. The centrality of anonymity to the enjoyment of human
rights, particularly online, is enshrined in numerous instruments, including
the Charter
of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet.

Like international human rights law, US
constitutional law
has long protected anonymous free expression. Yet, in Trump’s
America, the continued enjoyment of this right is in peril. The President’s February
screed against anonymous sources foretold of a forthcoming assault on
anonymity, particularly online. That assault began in the aftermath of the
President’s inauguration, when Facebook was sent warrants demanding the
unmasking of users and the disclosure of their communications and identifying
information in
a case
thought
to be connected
with an anti-Trump protest held during the inauguration. The number of people whose identity the government
requested – whose anonymity they sought to unmask – was 1.3 million.

In March, Customs and Border Protection issued
a summons to Twitter
, requesting the identification
details and IP addresses associated with @ALT_USCIS, a Twitter account
purporting to convey the views of dissenters within the government. That same
month, police
sought access
to the Facebook page of a group of protestors demonstrating
against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In each of these three cases, individuals
were using anonymous social media accounts or private groups to express or
organise dissent against the Trump administration.

The apogee of the assault came in July, when the Department
of Justice served a warrant on a website-hosting company, DreamHost, demanding
access
to the IP address of every person who had visited a
particular website. That website was an anti-Trump website, purportedly used to
coordinate protests during the inauguration. The number of people whose
identity the government requested – whose anonymity they sought to unmask – was
1.3 million.

Inauguration Day protest at Westlake Park, Seattle. Derek Simeone. Some rights reserved.In response to legal challenge and public outcry, the
government ultimately revised
the scope of the warrant, and its
legitimacy remains
in dispute
before the courts. But the confidence and audacity of the
Department of Justice in the first instance suggests the principle underpinning
its demand enjoys the approval of the highest office in the land – the
President’s.

Viewed through a Trumpian lens,
anonymity is the cover behind which dissenters and critics cower, lobbing “fake
news” missives and organising protests designed to attack the President.
Indeed, the equation of anonymity with falsity is a key tactic that Trump uses
to discredit those who might wish to speak out against the administration
without identifying themselves. Anonymous critics are not only unreliable, they
are deliberately untruthful: according to a Trump
tweet
, “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news
media, and they don’t mention names… it is very possible that those sources
don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!” The equation of anonymity with falsity is a key tactic.

At an
August rally in Phoenix
, Arizona, the President accused “truly dishonest people in the media and the fake
media” of simply “mak[ing] up stories. They have no sources in many cases. They
say “a source says” – there is no such thing. But they don’t report the facts.”
In the same speech, he also implicitly criticised protestors for exercising
their right to physical anonymity, calling out anti-fascist protestors for
“show[ing] up in the helmets and the black masks.”

Days later, following
subsequent anti-Trump protests, Arizonan legislator Republican Jay Lawrence announced his
intention
to ban masks at protest rallies,
claiming that “while the
right to anonymity is sometimes desirable in healthy political discourse… too
many who wish to act violently hide behind hoods or masks in an effort to
intimidate or conceal their identity from law enforcement.” This rhetoric,
when taken alongside the government’s legal attempts to unmask anonymous
internet users involved in protest and activism, amounts to an
administration-sanctioned attack on anonymity, online and off.

Across the world

It
is an attack which is all the more concerning because it is not only confined
to Trump’s America. Across the world, we see countries proposing measures aimed at unmasking internet
users: from China,
where new rules require internet forum providers to obtain and verify the real
identities of their users before accepting their comments, to Britain, whose Independent
Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill QC recently suggested that social media providers should
withhold the provision of encrypted services pending positive identification of
the internet user. Ecuador,
Vietnam, and Iran have all enacted laws in recent years requiring the use of
“real names” online, and large social media platforms such as Facebook enforce
real name policies. Max Hill QC suggested that social media providers should
withhold the provision of encrypted services pending positive identification of
the internet user.

Despite its clear importance in protecting critics,
activists, dissenters and whistleblowers from the types of punitive action
demonstrated by the Trump administration, the right to anonymity is neither
universally valued nor without its pitfalls.

Anonymity has a disinhibiting effect, particularly online,
removing social and cultural constraints that might otherwise restrain
commentators from making controversial, offensive or harmful remarks. The
confidence, ease and impunity with which online trolls, fake
news purveyors
and hate groups operate in the digital age is undoubtedly
fuelled in part by their ability to open and close anonymous social media
accounts with relative ease. That trolls’ platform of choice is overwhelmingly
Twitter, a social network that does not enforce a real name policy, is no
coincidence. Many have connected
the seeming uptick in intolerance, incivility and hate speech to the
proliferation of anonymous means of expression that the internet has enabled. Indeed,
some
States
have begun to exploit an increasingly caustic cyberspace by
deploying trolls and online hate mobs to promote State propaganda and silence
critics.

A
price worth paying

But seen through the lens of human rights, anonymity may be
the cure, rather than the cause, of intolerance and majoritarianism. Anonymity,
particularly online, enables those in the minority, those who would normally
stay silent, to speak out against the status quo without fear of reprisals.

Without the protection of obscurity, dissenting views might
disappear altogether, and along with them pluralistic societies, as public
discourses homogenise, intolerance becomes mainstream, and populist leaders
become increasingly emboldened by the absence of criticism. As the US Supreme
Court so
eloquently observed
, “[a]nonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the
majority . . . [that] exemplifies the purpose [of the First Amendment]: to
protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an
intolerant society.”

The
obstacles facing human rights activists faced with Trump’s unique brand of
populist and intolerant governance are many, but countering the President’s
assault on anonymity presents a particularly acute challenge. As long as the
right to anonymity exists, it can be enjoyed by fascists, trolls, journalists
and anti-Trump protesters alike. If we believe that it is a critical necessity
for some people to enjoy their free speech and privacy rights, we must defend anonymity’s
enjoyment by all. Violent protests and incivility online may be the price of
such a right, but the unexpected ascendency of a populist, fascistic and
authoritarian leader such as Donald Trump is a painful reminder of why that is
a price worth paying.

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Website for Late SF Artist Peter Elson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/09/2017 - 2:54am in

Going through the Net the other day, I found a website dedicated to the work of the late SF artist and illustrator, Peter Elson. Steve Holland in his Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History (New York: HarperCollins 2009) notes that Elson was one of the school of artists that was influenced by Chris Foss’ work in the 1970s. Elson was apparently unable to adapt after that style of SF illustration fell out of favour, and spent the last years of his life working on theatre illustration.

An example of Elson’s work, from Holland’s Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History.

He’s still one of my favourite SF artists.

The site’s Peter Elson Science Fiction Illustrator, and it’s at
http://www.peterelson.co.uk/index.php

The brief biography notes that he was a fan of the original Eagle comic, and has a suitable tribute by his friend, Carol Butfoy, who met him at Ealing School of Art, and formed a management agency with him, partly to handle his work. She concludes

The kind of cover art that Peter and many of his contemporaries produced will probably not be seen again. It was a golden age of SF and Fantasy illustration. You can still find the covers, sometimes in reprints, mostly as second hand copies at boot sales. They shine out for their magical ability to take you into a world you can scarcely imagine. It’s what great art always used to do, and Peter was a great artist.

If you want to see more of his work, including landscapes, vehicles and illustrations for Dr. Who, then go to the above site.

Sunday’s Anti-Sharia March in Bristol – A Liberal Façade Hiding Real Fascism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/09/2017 - 9:14pm in

Last Sunday afternoon, 10th September 2017, there was a demonstration against sharia law in Bristol by the groups Gays Against Sharia and British and Immigrants Against Terrorism. RT posted up a video about it yesterday, and it was also covered by ITN News, but not the Beeb. They were met by a counterdemonstration, Bristol Against Fascism.

http://www.itv.com/news/westcountry/update/2017-09-10/gays-against-sharia-march-starts-in-bristol/

If you look at some of the videos that have been posted, this could seem to many like a liberal demonstration against radical Islam. There is a section of the Muslim community, which would like sharia law incorporated into British law. And the preachers of hate, who have stood in front of their congregations to whip up hatred against Jews and Christians have also violently denounced gays. One picture of the march shows a White man and Black gent in African dress, supposedly united in the opposition to Islamic law and bigotry.

There’s also a video on YouTube by one of the march’s supporters, Greek Anne UK Lover, who is at pains to argue that these are nice liberal people, and it wasn’t an EDL march.

Well, it may not have been, but many of the same people were involved. At one point she shows a poster of the various people, who were expected to speak. And they include the usual Islamaphobes and Nazis. One of them was Paul Weston, of Liberty GB. Liberty GB is, or was, an anti-Islam political party, and Weston is part of the ‘counterjihad’ movement. I think Liberty GB could be fairly described as the political wing of the EDL. It was certainly allied to it, and Weston is associated with the members and leaders of the far right counterjihad movement, including Pamela Geller of the Atlas Shrugs website, Robert Spencer and so on.

One of the other speakers, or at least among those listed on her wall, was Jack Buckby. Buckby’s the founder of the ‘National Culturalists’, another far right organization, who were thrown off campus by the students’ guild at Liverpool uni as Fascists. He’s also one of the two extreme rightists photographed sitting bang right next to Jacob Rees-Mogg at the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group. This is another far right, anti-immigrant group, various of whose members are also fascinated with Nazis and quite like the idea of the return of feudalism. Mogg, of course, tried to distance himself from them as soon as the Independent published the story. He claimed that he didn’t know who they were when he accepted their dinner invitation. Which sounds highly unlikely to me.

As for Buckby himself, there’s absolutely no doubt that he is a Fascist. He used to be a member of the BNP, and Hope Not Hate has piccies of him proudly shaking the hand of Nick Griffin.

The march’s liberalism is therefore something of a façade. Behind it are the usual bigots and Nazis, who are deeply opposed to Islam as a whole, and not simply sharia law and Muslim terrorism.

But this again follows the standard policy of EDL. In many of their demonstrations, they tried to present themselves as multicultural liberals, among whose banners were Jews and Sikhs. But a Channel 4 documentary screened a few years ago also showed that, despite their liberal protestations, their members were by and large the same racists and White supremacists as those in the BNP and NF.

I am also at a loss why they should be marching in Bristol. I’ve no doubt that a few members of the Muslim community down here might be supporters of Islamist terrorism. But I’ve heard of no major scandals. To my knowledge, there haven’t been Muslim hate preachers standing on street corner spouting their bigoted bilge.

But there have been various Islamophobic attacks in the city, including one on a local mosque, and the EDL did hold a demonstration here a year or so ago. One of the other news reports stated that none of the marchers came from Bristol. It doesn’t look like a response to a local issue. Just the usual islamophobes trying to stir up more hatred.

Don’t be deceived by the appearance of liberalism and multiculturalism. Behind it were genuine racists and Nazis. Sharia law and Islamist terrorism should be opposed, but these aren’t the real issues here. This is all about drumming up hatred against Muslims. And once they’ve done that, the Nazis would come out of the woodwork and start preaching hate against the other groups Blacks, Asians, Jews, and the gays they claim to want to protect.

The march’s supporters have made videos denouncing Antifa and the other counterprotesters as intolerant fascists, but actually, Antifa and the other anti-racists were quite right.

The importance of Europeans sticking together to achieve a progressive Europe

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/09/2017 - 5:55pm in

Speech written for an international audience
at the Bozar in Brussels at last week-end's DiEM25 event on the ‘Real State of the
European Union’ and what to do about it.

lead lead Screenshot: Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Saturday, September 9.You
don’t need me tell you BREXIT is a dangerous mess. Ever since Theresa May ­­–
in that common sense tone which is a sure sign of ideology in Britain
– uttered the fateful words “BREXIT means BREXIT!” – we have been trapped on a
roller-coaster of unknowing. Rumours that the UK might become “the tax haven of
Europe” or the “hostile environment” apparently preferred by the Home Office,
come and go like flashes of lightning over our benighted landscape. The process
hitherto seems designed to show us and everyone else just how deeply polarized
but also poorly represented we are as a people, and how broken our democratic
system.

On
the eve of the EU referendum, I happened to find myself in a showing in London
of David Bernet’s quintessentially European film, ‘Democracy’, about the heroic struggle within the European
Parliament to secure key digital laws protecting citizens and consumers from
big data mining. Katarzyna from whom we heard earlier, stars in this epic tale,
alongside the heroic German Greens Jan Philipp Albrecht and Ralph Bendrath and
Joe McNamee, Director of European Digital Rights. This David and Goliath story
is actually a rare, gripping account in all its multilayered complexity, of a
triumphant democratic law-making process.

Remember
that Dr. Schauble mantra from the Eurogroup meeting that Yanis quotes – that “elections
cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a nation state”? Well for
those who haven’t seen the film, Albrecht’s mission as rapporteur is the direct
opposite. He argues, “99% of the lobbying in Brussels is by companies…  but millions of citizens have their interests
too… No one has the right to claim their interests are worth more than that of
the citizens.”

"Democracy", David Bernet, 2015. All rights reserved.Asked
to raise our hands at the end if this film gave us more confidence or less in
the EU that night, a large majority of that London audience said yes. I wanted
everyone I knew and didn’t know to see it. Indeed there could be no better
introduction to what is worth fighting for as Europeans. Not because, for Brits
reared on tabloid anti-EU propaganda, it was brilliant counter-propaganda.
Let’s be clear – the picture it paints is of a democratic process in deep
jeopardy from giant vested interests. Yet exactly because it was such an
unflinching record of the odds we are up against and the space for a political
alternative that really exists – here
was everything that was missing from our BREXIT debate, and everything that we
Europeans must be doing over the next two years, leading into the 2019
elections and beyond.

Why the
urgency? Because all over Europe there are people like the British majority who
voted for BREXIT, who need to know what is possible in politics and that they
can do something about it, people who associate the threat to their jobs, security and daily
lives with the European institutions, simply because, for far too long, we have been
told over and over again what is not possible, due to the out-of control forces that we are
encouraged to believe are all the more irresistible at the transnational level. 

“Take
back control” was the message of the 2016 Brexit referendum, seized on at the
first opportunity, to express how fed up people were at the lack of accountable
agency, the lack of empathy, the technocratic disavowal of responsibility
before the socio-economic forces of globalisation. As if on cue, only days
after Theresa May lost her majority, in June, Grenfell Tower in the country’s
richest borough of Kensington and Chelsea, went up in flames ­– its blackening
hulk an instant monument to the gulf between the authorities’ shameless
neoliberal negligeance, and a disenfranchised global working class who could
get no-one to listen to or do anything for them.

This
rejection of impotence that was BREXIT, might have remained at the level of a
finger towards a world where all is said to be inevitable, had it not been for
the snap elections in June. Here, not only did the Labour party come up with
one of the most progressive social democratic manifestos in living memory, but
their new cohorts of activists launched a process of large-scale engagement
with local publics, complemented by a wave of party and non-party grassroots supporters
of an emerging progressive alliance politics. Ordinary people stopping other
ordinary voters in the street to talk about politics is not something many have
seen before in much of the UK. But now we too had a glimpse of the energies
unleashed in the Scottish independence referendum, or emerging out of the 2011 social
movements into frontline innovative politics in Ada Colau’s international
network of fearless cities. Watching the Grenfell Tower survivors organise
their fightback for political and existential recognition was another lesson in
dignity and democracy for us all.

Labour
and their progressive allies, using their initiative to salvage a recognisable,
bottom up ‘politics’, have given Britain a chance to pose a supremely political
question: what is the room for manoeuvre for advancing social justice, turning
the tide against the worst effects of the financial crash and its extractive
neoliberal aftermath?

One
key factor in this room for manoeuvre we are beginning to understand better has
only emerged in recent months. Research
on both sides of the Atlantic shows how
susceptible
our mainstream press has been to an alliance of big data,
billionaire friends of Donald Trump and the disparate forces of
the Leave campaign in
both the US elections and the BREXIT referendum, and how fear-mongering over
immigration and Islam, targeting different parts of the population with their
radical right messaging, was successfully fomented on a major scale by some of
the most sophisticated communicators of our era.

What
are these people up to we might ask? As has been pointed out, among others by Alan Finlayson in a groundbreaking
essay
in the London Review of Books, much
of the political content of Brexit demands – ethnicised nationalism, economic
protection – is in flat contradiction to their political outlook. They are
globalists through and through. Take Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who
funded Leave.EU, who describes his as a “very simple agenda: to destroy the
professional politician”. The politics of continuing referendums and recalls
they advocate aims at stalling action by elected politicians and public service
professionals alike, “draining the swamp” to leave the way clear for a new kind of nihilistic governmentality, where the ebb and flow of
mood and opinion in big data can be surfed and any useful wave amplified and
capitalized upon. In this hyper-political
anti-politics
,
politics reduces to perpetual theatre.

For
them, Brexit will make it easier to remove legal and political obstacles to the
establishment of this new regime, through an increase in the power to win
support of those who own the data. (Can we be sure that a Ukipised Tory
Government intent
on hijacking
the Brexit binary referendum choice for a ‘hard Brexit’, will
scruple to misuse the inordinate powers they have given themselves to amend EU
laws as they are converted into UK law, for example, on the
retention, processing and sale of our personal data? Will we see those Democracy digital rights agreed in 2016, coming into effect across Europe in 2018, in full force in the UK? This vulnerability
of 40 years’ worth of lawmaking is at the centre of this
week’s key battle over parliamentary scrutiny
of the ‘Repeal Bill’.)

My
point is this. The anti-politics I’m talking about is predicated on one key
assumption about the relationship between people and knowledge. That in this
digitalised world, the people do not need to know and understand about their
own conditions of existence, as they are the thing to be known about and
manipulated accordingly!

If
this is the enemy, then a politics dedicated to what people as agents of their
own fate can make possible together, overcoming the barriers of fearmongering
and hatred, is what I believe DiEM25, ably led by that generator of political
alternatives, Yanis Varoufakis, wishes to serve. So I am here to ask, can the BREXIT rebuff to the mainstream
political agenda in Britain and Europe be turned into an opening for the
transformation that we all so urgently need?

We in
DiEM25 are glad that recommendations for a substantial transitional post-Brexit
referendum period, backed by our movement’s entire membership from London to Warsaw,
have been embraced by key players in Britain’s political class, starting with
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

Can’t
we take this new opportunity for adequate democratic process and scrutiny far further
in generating European alternatives and the experience of democracy in action? The UK must play a key role in the
open-sourced, democratic, transparent and radical transformation that Europe needs.

Will
we succeed? I'm not sure. But I am sure that what is possible, including a
referendum on a transformed UK rejoining a transformed democratic EU, will only
come about if we are in this fight together.

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Now in English, our eBook: The ecosystem of an open democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/09/2017 - 8:24pm in

<<The ecosystem of an open democracy>> is an eBook that we have co-published with apps4citizens in Barcelona, within the framework of our Political Experimentation section, which has been publishing online the articles we now compiled here.  Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, promoter of apps4citizens, and Francesc Badia i Dalmases, director and editor of DemocraciaAbierta are the editors of the publication. Español

Since a few years, we are witnessing the emergence of relational power, of transversality, of participation. This is the enclave that gives meaning and protagonism to technopolitics, to the political experimentation and to the democratic transformation that we are experiencing. 

The following authors from Spain and Latin America have participated in the eBook "The ecosystem of an open democracy": Ana Lis RodríguezMònica GarrigaRicard EspeltEduard Martín-BorregónEdgar RoviraSabrina Díaz RatoPablo ColladaTomas DiezMara BalestriniValeria RighiThamy PogrebinschiMatías BianchiCristian LeonAntonella Perini y Bernardo Gutiérrez

The eBook is available for download in English and Spanish (and coming soon, Portuguese) here:

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Now in English, our eBook: The ecosystem of an open democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/09/2017 - 8:24pm in

<<The ecosystem of an open democracy>> is an eBook that we have co-published with apps4citizens in Barcelona, within the framework of our Political Experimentation section, which has been publishing online the articles we now compiled here.  Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, promoter of apps4citizens, and Francesc Badia i Dalmases, director and editor of DemocraciaAbierta are the editors of the publication. Español

Since a few years, we are witnessing the emergence of relational power, of transversality, of participation. This is the enclave that gives meaning and protagonism to technopolitics, to the political experimentation and to the democratic transformation that we are experiencing. 

The following authors from Spain and Latin America have participated in the eBook "The ecosystem of an open democracy": Ana Lis RodríguezMònica GarrigaRicard EspeltEduard Martín-BorregónEdgar RoviraSabrina Díaz RatoPablo ColladaTomas DiezMara BalestriniValeria RighiThamy PogrebinschiMatías BianchiCristian LeonAntonella Perini y Bernardo Gutiérrez

The eBook is available for download in English and Spanish (and coming soon, Portuguese) here:

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Book Review: The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/09/2017 - 11:46pm in

Tags 

Internet

In The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online, Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner explore the contradictions and paradoxes of the internet as a realm of ‘vernacular creativity’ . This is a thought-provoking and original study that diverges from a ‘good or bad’ binary to instead demonstrate the messy ambivalence of internet culture today, writes Dr Zoetanya Sujon. 

The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner. Polity. 2017.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Whitney Phillips, winner of the Nancy Baym book award for her work on trolling and mainstream culture (2015), and Ryan M. Milner, author of the World Made Meme (2016), turn their sharp focus to the weird world of internet culture. In this highly anticipated book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online, the authors concentrate on the meeting points between memes and trolling through the lens of folklore and communications traditions as well as drawing rich theoretical insights from ‘overlapping social sciences’, especially anthropology and psychology, along with literary studies (14). The authors open up internet culture through a kind of ‘auto-ethnographic approach’ in order to better understand the tensions between the individual and the collective, between the private and the public and between the mainstream and subaltern (25). While this book is clearly rooted in their previous work, there is a lot of value in this conceptually rich collaboration, examining the contradictions, nuances and ambiguity of the internet, and the multiplicities of its use.

Beginning with the tale of the ‘Three Wolf Moon’ t-shirt, a now-legendary internet object that depicted three wolves howling at the moon and inspired funny and satirical Amazon reviews attributing the shirt with magical powers, this book provides a friendly and thorough introduction to what Phillips and Milner refer to as the ‘folkloric expression of vernacular creativity’ (25). The book focuses on in-depth, wide-ranging and thoroughly detailed examples of individual and collective expression on the internet – what the authors refer to as ‘vernacular creativity’ – grouped according to theme and linked with a relevant synthesis of theories and concepts.

Further drawing on wild and weird examples of and from the internet, the book is structured as follows: the rise of Twitter hashtags like #Cosby, #AskThicke, #YesAllWomen (Chapter One); coordinated viral attacks on celebrities like those by racist and anti-feminist trolls on Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones (Chapter Two); Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic The Room (2003) and ermahgerd memes (Chapter Three); the remediation of urban legends on social media like ‘Slenderman’ and the ‘kidney heist’ (Chapter Four); and the relevance of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and Donald Trump’s political presence on social media (Chapter Five).

Image Credit: (Iain Heath CCO)

The examples provide an engaging foundation throughout the book, which Phillips and Milner use to argue that the internet is ambivalent. By this, Phillips and Milner aim to understand how these phenomena both build and destroy communities: how viral memes and Twitter hashtags can ‘hijack identities’ causing immense personal distress as well as cement collective and collaborative relationships that are both pro- and anti-social, often at the same time. In this sense, this book is a welcome departure from the ‘good or bad’ binary often dominating popular media coverage and a great deal of academic work on digital and social media and internet studies.

With this often paradoxical ambivalence in place, Phillips and Milner go on to make a number of observations about the nature of internet culture, and in the process provide significant contributions to internet, digital, social and media studies. Among the many rich points within the book, the three most compelling and thought-provoking arguments can be summarised through the folkloric, constitutive and public nature of internet culture.

First, weird internet and user culture is important as folkloric expression with historic and non-digital precedents. This point and its corresponding chapter are indeed one of my favourites, providing deep insights into ‘the everyday expression of everyday people’, which is not:

by and large, house of worship talk. It’s not ivory-tower talk. It’s back-alley talk, around-the-campfire talk. Furtive talk when the boss isn’t listening. Hybrid, unpolished, and unfinished, folklore is where formality goes to rest (25-26).

Although there is no direct mention of Michel de Certeau or studies of media and everyday life (e.g. Bull 2000, Bird 2003, Gerrard 2017), Phillips and Milner look at internet culture as ‘post-modern folklore’, articulating a kind of twenty-first-century framework for understanding the ambivalence of everyday life on the internet. In this sense, Phillips and Milner validate the importance of what might otherwise be seen only as the playful and ridiculous, rather than also being folkloric, expressive and culturally literate.

Second, drawing from studies of humour (e.g. Dundes 1987, Oring 1992, 2003, Kuipers 2015), Phillips and Milner argue that humour on the internet is socially, culturally and politically constitutive, online and offline. All of their examples, such as the rise of ‘internet ugly’, ‘absurdist creativity’, vaguely insulting jokes about ‘your dad’ and ‘Hulk Hogan’, point to the ways humour is used to create a ‘cozy laughing ingroup’: an ‘us’ which can share values and cultural references. However, true to the ambivalent nature of internet culture, every act which constitutes an ‘us’ also creates ‘at least the potential for an outgroup’: a ‘them’ who are unable (or lack the interest) to decode particular cultural vernaculars (96-97). Here, humour is generative of both particular identifications and ‘otherings’ or exclusions (106). As Phillips and Milner suggest, ‘decoding humour […] requires a set of broader cultural literacies’ (112): a critical point for understanding internet phenomena and the importance of user behaviour.

Third, Phillips and Milner argue that public debate is messy, contradictory and shaped by ‘the evil twins’ of ‘conflict and unity, and affect and rationality’, as well as the play frame of internet culture. Focusing on ‘Boaty McBoatface’ – the most popular name chosen by the masses in a public vote for the £200m polar vessel – Phillips and Milner argue that voice on the internet is complex, ambivalent and entails ‘a process that empowers and marginalizes in equal measure’ (169). Linking Boaty’s playful dynamics to Trump’s bombastic populism, Phillips and Milner successfully outline the affective and exclusionary tensions around building an ‘us’ which can simultaneously silence and amplify others (172-73). By addressing the use of humour for political action (e.g. Periods for Pence or #FreeChrisChristie), Phillips and Milner argue that the ‘play frame’ may not be new, but is increasingly visible and increasingly potent within politics and public debate.

All of these arguments and observations build upon and illustrate the overall ambivalence of the internet, as well as providing a thought-provoking and original synthesis of a wide range of theory and examples. Students and those new to internet culture will love the freshness and accessibility of this book. Those with more experience will appreciate the authors’ significant contributions to internet and digital studies, although they may also question the absence of political economy or critical theory as part of the ‘ambivalent internet’, particularly in terms of power and hegemony (e.g. Fuchs 2017, 2016, Van Dijck 2013). In addition, I found myself questioning auto-ethnography as a method. While I plan to use this book in courses on social media and digital culture, auto-ethnography will need further explanation particularly in terms of representativeness and generalisation – points which could be addressed in Phillips and Milner’s notes on method. Finally, it is worth considering how Phillips and Milner’s vision of the ambivalent internet fits within youth culture, particularly as many, if not all, of their examples are arguably youth-oriented. Given the larger global proportion of young people online (70% of 15-24 year olds) compared to 50% of the world’s entire online population, this is especially relevant, if also ambivalent.

Dr Zoetanya Sujon is a senior lecturer in media theory at Regent’s University London and specialises in social media, participatory media, digital culture and social and cultural theory. Dr Sujon practices an interdisciplinary approach, primarily bridging sociology and media and communications with the cultural politics of technologies in everyday life. Dr Sujon is a fellow of the HEA and is seconded to academic and educational development at Regent’s. Dr Sujon is currently writing her first book, The Social Media Age: Power and Participation in a Connected World (Sage, 2019). Dr Sujon tweets at @jetsumgerl.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Who’s working for Facebook?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/09/2017 - 11:00pm in

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There are plenty of reasons to be interested in—and, even more, concerned about—Facebook. Many of them are raised in the recent review of Facebook-related books by John Lanchester [ht: db]: the fragmentation of the polity (via the targeting of posts), the dissemination of “fake news” (which played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election), the undermining of other livelihoods (such as journalism and music), the level of surveillance of users (much more than any national government), the violation of anti-monopoly rules (via individualized pricing), and so on.

All of them are important—and they get at what the Facebook business model is all about:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

That’s right. That’s how the owners of Facebook make their money: they track users, collect information, and then sell that to advertisers.*

But it still doesn’t get at the issue of who works for Facebook, who creates that value, what the class structure of Facebook (and Google and other such companies) is.

Lanchester’s answer is that we, the two billion or so of us who use Facebook, actually work for the social-media giant.

Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company.

In one sense, Lanchester is right: if Facebook users don’t create or repost content and click on and respond to one another’s postings, then Facebook’s business model falls apart. In fact, as Lanchester explains,

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. Two billion monthly active users is a lot of people, and the ‘network effects’ – the scale of the connectivity – are, obviously, extraordinary. But there are other internet companies which connect people on the same scale – Snapchat has 166 million daily users, Twitter 328 million monthly users – and as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

But what I find interesting is the fact that Lanchester can write a longish essay on Facebook and never once mention the word labor—and the only people who seem to be working are Facebook users.

What about Facebook’s employees? As it turns out, Facebook reported a headcount of 18,770 in its first-quarter earnings release (and likely employs more workers, as independent contractors for specific projects). Why don’t we consider them to be the ones who create the value realized by selling space to advertisers and information to others who purchase the data gathered by Facebook? And Facebook employees the ones who are working for and being exploited by Facebook’s board of directors?

When General Motors sells cars, the people who purchase and drive the cars aren’t being exploited; GM workers are. The same is true for other corporations, from Abbott Laboratories to Zoetis (which, along with Facebook, make up the Standard & Poor’s 500, covering about eighty percent of the American equity market by capitalization). They’re employees, not their customers, are the ones who create value and surplus-value.

So, why is Facebook (and, by the same token, other social-media and internet companies) different?

The answer, I think, is our relationship to the commodity being produced and sold is different. We purchase cars—and, if we’re aware of it, we know they’re produced by exploited auto-workers. But in the case of Facebook, we’re not purchasing anything at all, at least directly. We post content to our friends or advertise a business or try to form a community. And then it’s Facebook that collects data about us and sells it—not to us but to others, other corporations. Without our participation, of course, Facebook would not have anything to sell, and therefore no way of making a profit.

And, more generally, we seem to be spending more and more time involved in activities for which we are not remunerated but are essential for the profit-making activities of corporations we don’t work for. We post on social-media sites. We use search engines to navigate the internet. We search for flights. We check-out and bag the commodities we purchase at retail stores. And so on.

But I’m not convinced we’re creating value and subjecting ourselves to class exploitation. We may be performing labor but we’re not working for those corporations. And we are being commodified, and participating in our commodification.

But we’re not working for those corporations. Their employees are—and they’re the ones who are being exploited.

 

*Although, according to a recent report, Facebook may exaggerate the reach of its advertising platform: it claims to reach millions more users among specific age groups in the U.S. than the official census data show reside in the country.

Tagged: advertising, class, data, employees, exploitation, Facebook, internet, surveillance, workers

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