November 13, 2011

The Coming Fascist Internet

Around four decades ago or so, at the U.S. Defense Department funded ARPANET's first site at UCLA -- what would of course become the genesis of the global Internet -- I spent a lot of time alone in the ARPANET computer room. I'd work frequently at terminals sandwiched between two large, noisy, minicomputers, a few feet from the first ARPANET router -- Interface Message Processor (IMP) #1, which empowered the "blindingly fast" 56 Kb/s ARPANET backbone. Somewhere I have a photo of the famous "Robby the Robot" standing next to that nearly refrigerator-sized cabinet and its similarly-sized modem box.

I had a cubicle I shared elsewhere in the building where I also worked, but I kept serious hacker's hours back then, preferring to work late into the night, and the isolation of the computer room was somehow enticing.

Even the muted roar of the equipment fans had its own allure, further cutting off the outside world (though likely not particularly good for one's hearing in the long run).

Occasionally in the wee hours, I'd shut off the room's harsh fluorescent lights for a minute or two, and watch the many blinking lights play across the equipment racks, often in synchronization with the pulsing and clicking sounds of the huge disk drives.

There was a sort of hypnotic magic in that encompassing, flickering darkness. One could sense the technological power, the future coiled up like a tight spring ready to unwind and energize many thousands of tomorrows.

But to be honest, there was little then to suggest that this stark room -- in conjunction with similar rooms scattered across the country at that time -- would trigger a revolution so vast and far-reaching that governments around the world, decades later, would cower in desperate efforts to leash it, to cage its power, to somehow turn back the clock to a time when communications were more firmly under the thumbs of the powers-that-be.

There were some clues. While it was intended that the ARPANET's resource sharing capabilities would be the foundation of what we now call the "cloud," the ARPANET was (somewhat to the consternation of various Defense Department overseers) very much a social space from the beginning.

Starting very early on, ARPANET communications began including all manner of personal discussions and interests, far beyond the narrow confines of "relevant" technical topics. A "wine tasting enthusiasts" mailing list triggered reprimands from DoD when it became publicly known thanks to a magazine article, and I won't even delve here into the varied wonders of the "network hackers" and "mary hartman" mailing lists.

In fact, the now ubiquitous mailing list "digest" format was originally invented as a "temporary" expedient when "high volumes" of traffic (by standards of the time) threatened the orderly distribution of the science-fiction and fantasy oriented "sf-lovers" mailing list. Many other features that we take for granted today in email systems were created or enhanced largely in reaction to these sorts of early "social" communications on the very young Net.

The early ARPANET was mostly restricted to the U.S., but as international points began to come online the wonders expanded. I still remember the day I found myself in a "talk" (chat) link with a party at a military base in Norway -- my first international live contact on the Net that I knew of. I remember thinking then that someday, AT&T was going to start getting concerned about all this.

The power of relatively unfiltered news was also becoming apparent back then. One of my projects involved processing newswire data (provided to me over the ARPANET on a friendly but "unofficial" basis from another site) and building applications to search that content and alert users (both textually and via a synthesized voice phone-calling system -- one of my other pet projects) about items of interest.

For much of the Net's existence, both phone companies and governments largely ignored (or at least downplayed) the ARPANET, even as it evolved toward the Internet of today.

AT&T and the other telcos had explicitly expressed disinterest early on, and even getting them to provide the necessary circuits had at times been a struggle. Governments didn't really seem to be worried about an Internet "subculture" that was limited mostly to the military, academia, and a variety of "egghead" programmers variously in military uniforms and bell-bottoms, whether sporting crew cuts, scruffy longhairs, or somewhere in-between.

But with the fullness of time, the phone companies, cable companies, governments, and politicians galore came to most intensely pay attention to the Internet, as did the entertainment industry behemoths and a broad range of other "intellectual property" interests.

Their individual concerns actually vary widely at the detailed level, but in a broader context their goals are very much singular in focus.

They want to control the Internet. They want to control it utterly, completely, in every technologically possible detail (and it seems in various technically impossible ways as well).

The freedom of communications with which the Internet has empowered ordinary people -- especially one-to-many communications that historically have been limited to governments and media empires themselves -- is viewed as an existential threat to order, control, and profits -- that is, to historical centers of power.

Outside of the "traditional" aspects of government control over their citizenries, another key element of the new attempts to control the Net are desperate longings by some parties to turn back the technological clock to a time when music, movies, plus other works could not so easily be duplicated and disseminated in both "authorized" and "unauthorized" fashions.

The effective fall of copyright in this context was preordained by human nature (we are physical animals, and the concept of non-physical "property" plays against our natures) and there's been a relentless "march of bits" -- with text, music, and movies entering the fray in turn as ever more data could be economically stored and transferred.

In their efforts to control people and protect profits, governments and associated industries (often in league with powerful Internet Service Providers -- ISPs -- who in some respects are admittedly caught in the middle), seem willing to impose draconian, ultimately fascist censorship, identification, and other controls on the Internet and its users, even extending into the basic hardware in our homes and offices.

I've invoked fascism in this analysis , and I do not do so lightly.

The attacks on fundamental freedoms to communicate that are represented by various government repression of the Internet around the world, and in the U.S. by hypocritical legislation like PROTECT IP and SOPA (E-PARASITE), are fundamentally fascist in nature, despite between wrapped in their various flags of national security, anti-piracy profit protection, motherhood, and apple pie.

Anyone or anything that is an enabler of communications not willingly conforming to this model are subject to attack by authorities from a variety of levels -- with the targets ranging from individuals like you and me, to unbiased enablers of organic knowledge availability like Google.

For all the patriotic frosting, the attacks on the Internet are really attacks on what has become popularly known as the 99%, deployed by the 1% powers who are used to having their own way and claiming the largest chunks of the pie, regardless of how many ants (that's us!) are stomped in the process.

This is not a matter of traditional political parties and alliances. In the U.S., Democrats and Republican legislators are equally culpable in these regards.

This is a matter of raw power that transcends other ideologies, of the desire of those in control to shackle the Internet to serve their bidding, while relegating free communications for everyone else to the dustbin of history.

It is very much our leaders telling us to sit down, shut up, and use the Internet only in the furtherance of their objectives -- or else.

To me, these are the fundamental characteristics of a fascist world view, perhaps not in the traditional sense but clearly in the ultimate likely impacts.

The Internet is one of the most important tools ever created by mankind. It certainly ranks with the printing press, and arguably in terms of our common futures on this tiny planet perhaps even with fire.

The question is, are we ready and willing to fight for the Net as it should be in the name of civil rights and open communications? Or will we sit back compliantly, happily gobble down the occasional treats tossed in our direction, and watch as the Internet is perverted into a monstrous distortion to control speech and people alike, rather than enabling the spread of freedom.

Back in that noisy computer room so many years ago, I couldn't imagine that I was surrounded by machines and systems that would one day lead to such a question, and to concerns of such import.

The blossoming we've seen of the Internet was not necessarily easy to predict back then. But the Internet's fascist future is much more clear, unless we fight now -- right now -- to turn back the gathering evil.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at November 13, 2011 01:38 PM | Permalink
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