A talk from ORGCon 2017 with David Levy — Labour Friends of ORG, and Richard Barbook — academic and Labour digital guru, author of Labour’s Digital Manifesto. I talked about insidious, invisible censorship and surveillance to an audience of people who support both digital freedoms and the Labour party.
I lived the first years of my life under a very brutal dictatorship. People would disappear for criticising the state. There was a limit to the state’s power, however, and that was technology. It was simply too expensive to spy on everybody, all of the time.
Ceausescu could have only dreamed of this hi-tech surveillance state; all he had was wiretaps and infiltrators.
It turns out the West has superb technology and it’s spying on us indiscriminately all the time. There is a limit to how much the state knows about what we do in the bathroom, but everything else is outsourced to the internet, and therefore known to the state. This was revealed by Snowden and others years ago, but instead of a popular move to counteract this deep and sophisticated violation of privacy, the UK government sought to come out of the totalitarian closet and made the Snoopers Charter into law last year.
Like Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party showed in his speech at ORGCON, we completely lost all privacy.
It’s not just surveillance though.
Surveillance and censorship go hand in hand
Paul Bernal said in ORGCON — “the importance of privacy is that it protects other rights, without it you cannot have freedom of speech. Our government likes to get rid of both“.
I was sold the idea of the West as the free world. Little did I know upon moving here that the government hijacked the internet into a control matrix over every little area of our lives.
Internet was a huge promise of free information for all but soon the government hoarded all this information for itself.
It’s time to harvest the potential of the internet back towards democracy and liberation, away from surveillance and censorship.
As a child during the Romanian Revolution, I saw people die for freedom. Die for it. Now I see people consenting to their freedoms being chopped bit by bit every day.
Home secretary Amber Rudd said: “I want to make sure those who view despicable terrorist content online (including jihadi websites, far-right propaganda and bomb-making instructions,) face the full force of the law.”
According to Tory plans revealed during their October conference, people who view terrorist content online could go to jail.
How do we define terrorist content?
This government defined fracking activists as terrorists. Think about that. Peaceful demonstrators against the destruction of our environment are now terrorists according to this government. You could go to jail for watching anti-fracking videos, if this government gets their way.
Tech giants engage in censorship
The World Socialist Website is an international and established publication that has been covertly censored by Google.
In May, the search term “socialism” generated 31,696 impressions in Google search, and the WSWS was ranked between 5th and 6th in search results. In June, the WSWS was removed from the top 100 search results for the term. Thus searches for “socialism” produced zero impressions for the World Socialist Web Site, the most widely read online socialist publication.
Google admitted in spring 2017 that they demote “unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and conspiracy theories” — broad and amorphous language used to exclude any oppositional content.
If you criticise the government on your platform, Google will demote you in search results under various pretexts.
Twitter admittedly censored large amounts of information referencing Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee (“DNC”) published prior to the 2016 presidential election.
In prepared testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism delivered on October 31st, Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean J. Edgett acknowledged:
With respect to #DNCLeak, approximately 23,000 users posted around 140,000 unique Tweets with that hashtag in the relevant period. Of those Tweets, roughly 2% were from Russian-linked accounts. As noted above, our automated systems at the time detected, labelled, and hid just under half (48%) of all the original Tweets with #DNCLeak.
By the above criteria, a person with a Russian sounding name could find themselves deactivated on Twitter as this to them proves a Russian conspiracy. People sometimes use a virtual proxy network or VPN for short. Sometimes this may result in a VPN user using a Russian IP address. Is this enough to have their content removed under the pretext of a Russian government conspiracy? Surely accusations should first be proven before violating people’s rights to expression on such a large scale.
During the #DNCleaks, many people on Twitter were complaining that their tweets regarding the Democratic Party’s corruption were hidden. They were dismissed as conspiracy theorists at the time. This statement Twitter made to the US Senate shows they were right.
Ever since the US elections, a concept has been flying about which was, oddly enough, chosen as Collins word of the year.
This, not a word, but phrase is “fake news”.
Under the banner of fake news, many alternative media websites have been attacked and censored by the tech giants, politicians and the established press.
I write for alternative media. I write for crowdfunded democratic paper The Word and Scisco Media. I also write for the socialist blog Ungagged. During general elections this year, I was posting links to my articles on Facebook. Right before the election, Facebook disabled my account with no explanation. Many attempts to find out why were completely ignored. I wasn’t the only one.
In the same week that I was censored, Facebook announced that they had deleted tens of thousands of accounts in a crack-down on fake news. Facebook took the decision that I was fake news. I don’t even have a Russian sounding name. Nor have ever been to Russia. I write articles from a left-wing perspective, which is a healthy exercise of democracy. It’s a violation of my freedom of speech to be thus censored by an algorithm arbitrarily deciding I am fake news…with no right to appeal.
I came to ORGCON to debate our rights on the internet.
I was very surprised at the number of voices that advocated censorship for various groups, like Helen Lewis and Graham Linehan speaking on the first day of ORGCON.
Some speakers have been trying to describe the dangers of alternative media and alternative points of view by picking the most extreme and illogical ends of it.
Like the alt-right racists with tiki torches and Tommy Robinson of EDL.
It’s as disingenuous as defining the whole branch of politicians by referencing to tax avoidance and child abuse.
“Conspiracy theory” and “fake news” are the new heresy
In many regards, the neoliberal state is similar to the Catholic Church. Such as ideological power.
Images created by the neoliberal state are as powerful and magnetic as the Renaissance art paid for by the Catholic Church. Hollywood and the media sustain the official narrative with as much credence as loaned to the Catholic Church by Michelangelo.
One of these powerful images is fake news, the enemy from Russia. It lends itself to censorship and surveillance in the service of safety from the threat of…unofficial information. It’s the new McCarthyism.
But it is the official information that was time and time again proven wrong. We were lied to about Iraq and Jimmy Saville. Now information streams that warn us about those lies are discredited under the banner of fake news.
Weapons of Mass Destruction was a lethal type of fake news. The people who perpetrated that are still on TV warning us against independent journalists who call for justice.
There is no denying that the internet spawned a new age of skepticism towards the government through the rise of alt media. This is a healthy exercise in democracy and opposition. Without it, you don’t have a free society.
As censorship increases so does surveillance
The free society and the government struggle over control of the internet, as one side has the monopoly of power to silence the other.
The Investigative Powers Act and the Digital Economy Bill are not the only authoritarian digital laws. But they are the most visible.
Investigative Powers Act legislates intrusion into the browsing history of citizens by officials but no symmetric transparency is afforded to the public. MPs themselves have exempted themselves from interception.
If we are to follow the principle of “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” — it seems the MPs might have something to hide. But then we already know that.
Mass surveillance doesn’t even serve the stated purpose of “fighting terrorism”.
Targeted surveillance is in fact far more effective than mass surveillance. With mass surveillance, as Congressman James Sensenbrenner put it: “The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle.” There is no evidence blanket surveillance prevents atrocities.
In fact, this government’s austerity regime seems to kill more people through starvation than terrorism has over ten years. This law definitely doesn’t seem to come from people who want to prevent the loss of life. If they did, surely they would stop selling arms to the Saudis?
It’s more likely that censorship and surveillance is here to control our awareness and reaction to government policy: privatisation, war and austerity.
You would expect this from a Tory government who as recent news show, are used to manipulating information to exert control. But the great and disapointing surprise was to see Labour MPs voting unanomysly for the IPA, with the exception of, of course, the legendary Dennis Skinner.
Labour has to catch up with the fight for digital rights and freedoms.
Labour’s digital menifesto seemed in perfect ignorance of the growing threats of surveillance and censorship.
1. Repeal IPA and the Digital Economy Bill, to counteract the totalitarian surveillance of a government that was found to be in breach of human rights by UN.
2. . Uphold freedom of speech online
This would have to be achieved by reversing the incestuous and undemocratic relationship between government and tech giants whereby the latter practice covert censorship at the bidding of the former.
We need to make the fight against censorship an explicit and conscious goal.
Remember the aftermath of this summer’s election? Theresa May lost her majority in parliament, not least because control of the official narrative was lost. Many people were disillusioned with the bias of the BBC and The Guardian and turned to alternative media online instead. The internet offers a plurality of opinion that is beautiful and democratic.
There is little surprise therefore that in the Queen’s speech, May announced her intent for a new controlled internet. This is a statement and a timing that sent chills down my spine. It’s very surprising to me as a Romanian, that a western leader of government can be so open about her authoritarian intent, and little indignation is felt across the country. Also, little indignation is felt in the main opposition party on this specific topic, of freedom of speech — which is now the territory of the online world.
It is a crucial point where we decide whether the internet is the vehicle of our freedom, or the vehicle of our oppression.