Now here’s something that doesn’t occur very often: a respected Internet expert bravely explains to the U.S. foreign policy establishment why open networks are important to an open society – and why Anonymous, Julian Assange and other networked-based protesters are not terrorist threats.
Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler’s essay, “Hacks of Valor,” in the April issue of Foreign Affairs, faces down some of the demagogic smears that are now being leveled at defenders of an open Internet. He questions the moral authority of a government to go after Anonymous with such vituperation when it has itself normalized lawless activity such as detentions, torture and targeted assassinations, and refuses to bring the powerful past and present culprits to account.
Keith Alexander, the general in charge of the U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, has warned that Anonymous could “bring about a limited power outage through a cyberattack.” Vice President Biden has called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist.”
A case of serious rhetorical over-reach. Any act by Anonymous or Assange pales when set aside the U.S. military’s documented record of civilian massacres, mistaken drone strikes and other acts of state terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. By comparison to these actions, Anonymous amounts to a group of pranksters. Its hackers have defaced the websites of governments and the Motional Picture Association of America, and waged some effective denial of service attacks on websites.
To be sure, Anonymous and Assange are harsh critics of the existing order of power. And their speech has been embarrassing to the US Government. That may be what is most galling to Obama officials: Open, persuasive criticism, prominently expressed. And an open Internet most certainly makes it easier for the public to express its distrust and distaste for government actions.
That’s surely another thing that enrages Alexander and Biden: that ordinary citizens can more effectively challenge the Market/State's quiet alliance, such as the Hollywood/RIAA and US trade office's agenda for extending copyright law without any public input or congressional involvement -- another point referenced by Benkler.
The secret negotiations for the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement were an international end-run around Congress and other legislatures designed to make the Internet safe for unprecedented levels of copyright control over Internet speech. The governments of the U.S. and Japan and the EU were clearly not happy that their citizens could suddenly make a public stink about it. Citizen participation in policymaking ("petitioning their governments") is to be avoided in the pretend-democracies of the 21st century.
The reason that Anonymous and other network-based protesters inspire such over-the-top denunciations by top administration officials is because their free speech and democratic protests are so compelling to so many people. Benkler writes that Anonymous “embodies and expresses a growing doubt that actors with formal authority will make decisions of greater legitimacy than individuals acting collectively in newly powerful networks and guided by their own consciences….Anonymous plays the role of the audacious provocateur, straddling the boundaries between destructive, disruptive and instructive.”
Benkler concludes: “Any society that commits itself to eliminating what makes Anonymous possible and powerful risks losing the opening and uncertainty that have made the Internet home to so much innovation, expression and creativity.”
Too bad that he didn’t elaborate on that theme. That’s the heart of what the U.S. Government and its allied corporations risk destroying with their over-reaching campaigns. Freedom entails risks and excesses, but in general it tends to be highly innovative and constructive. Most Internet users are proving themselves to be more open to transparency, citizen participation and democratic process than the U.S. Government, which continues to hide decisionmaking in secrecy, vilify its critics and evade genuine democratic accountability. The State Department and Hillary Clinton have extolled the value of open networks as a force for good in authoritarian nations like Egypt and Iran. But here at home? Not so much.