Giving internet access to poor people has been much in the news of late. Facebook’s internet.org plans to offer free access in so-called Third World countries. In Africa, VOTO Mobile wants to get as many people online as possible, mostly through mobile networks. Meanwhile Cuba resists the trend, dragging its feet on internet access for its people.
It is a modern-day axiom, for many, that the internet means freedom. “Information wants to be free!” they cry. “So let us give information to people, so they too can be free!”
But who is giving information to whom?
Consider: The internet does not just give you information. It takes your information. The reader is both subject and object — the reader is read while reading. (When you look up Google Maps, Google Maps is also mapping you.) So while going online gives you access to a world of information, it also gives the world near total information about you.
What’s the old saying?
You either pay for a product, or you are the product.
But the problem goes far beyond that. Facebook’s internet.org project is nothing short of third-wave colonial plunder. On the internet, we are our data; and Facebook’s goal is to own that data; and in the coming years that means they will own us.
What do I mean by “colonial plunder”? And why “third wave”?
The first wave was easy to spot: Europeans invaded foreign lands, killed the leaders, enslaved the masses, and shipped the precious metals back to Europe. Locals were “converted” to Christianity at sword point, and the local religion and culture co-opted or destroyed.
The second wave began in the 1960s, with the withdrawal of most colonial occupying forces. The second wave consists of mercantilism — a form of economic imperialism that enslaves, coerces, and extracts value from poorer countries. We call this globalization and “free trade” the same way the Spanish conquistadores called their plunder and mass murder “converting the heathens.”
So for the last seventy-odd years we have lived in an empire that refuses to call itself an empire, with colonies who gladly send their best and brightest to be economic Janissaries on the capitalist battlefield. But empire is still empire, colonies are still colonies, and plunder is still plunder regardless of what pleasant sophistries you cloak them in.
Now we have arrived in the third wave. A wave of information plunder, a new form of global imperial hegemony unthinkable in former times. And the novelty and sparkle and dazzle of the tiny screens we carry in our pockets seduces entire populations to voluntarily accept slavery.
As David Mamet writes so presciently in Three Uses of the Knife (1998!):
Information, the destructive countervailing force, travels under the mantle of art, or its more humble simulacrum, entertainment, as rapine and pillage go by the name Lebensraum or Manifest Destiny or the Monroe Doctrine.
We are, in the grip of this phenomenon, entering a new dark age. The information age is centralizing knowledge, rendering it liable to despotic control…
…we are in the sway of vast forces — forces so vast, their sweep so difficult to resist, that we must explain their power over us by fervently advocating them, by defining their unquestionable, irresistible power as financial cornucopia, and, by extension, as “good.”
So it goes. We call slavery “freedom,” insist our plunder of foreign lands is guided by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and then proclaim ourselves bewildered at the suggestion that we mean anything but well to the rest of the world. (Does Mark Zuckerberg even realize the imperial conquest in which he’s engaged? Or does he just not care about his victims?)
Bruce Schneier declared in 2013 that Silicon Valley had been “commandeered” by the US government. And some businesses, it is true, are unwilling participants. But others freely and willingly join in this wanton conquest.
So I propose a new metaphor: privateering. Y’all remember what that is, right? In days of yore, governments granted letters of marque to private seagoing vessels to pirate in the king’s name. But legalized piracy is still piracy, sanctioned theft is still theft, and when Facebook or Microsoft or Google accept Washington’s letter of marque to go forth and pillage, they are engaged in rapine and plunder every bit as much as the cutthroats who once sailed the ocean looking for easy prey.
Some may say at this point I’m exaggerating. Business is business, perhaps you think. Caveat emptor. If they don’t want to buy, no one’s forcing them to.
Consider the political consequences of this data plundering.
Getting people online, as internet.org hopes to do, means changing the political and social dynamic in the countries in question. Living offline, pre-internet, means the old rules apply — decentralized power structures dependent on the natural laws of the physical world. Military coups require lots of boots on the ground. Successful protests require many more. Identifying dissidents and tracking their movements is difficult. Preventing publication of information that discredits the government is close to impossible.
But online? The power balance shifts. Identifying dissenting voices and enforcing conformity is simple: All you have to do is XKEYSCORE your way through your mass surveillance database, and your secret police will disappear, torture, and murder anyone who disagree with the government. Voila! A nice, peaceful, obedient society.
Hey. It’s only torture. Small price to pay for social order, amiright?
Because this is the ultimate goal of all mass surveillance: the purging of “undesirables” from society. A cull of thought criminals. The CIA-backed Soeharto regime in Indonesia murdered more than a half a million suspected communists in the 1960s; hundreds of thousands of journalists, dissidents, academics, and trade unionists murdered in Latin America as part of Operation Condor; today the CIA’s assassination program continues to purge humanity of people guilty of nothing more than having a conscience.
This is what makes the internet the greatest tool for totalitarianism ever invented. Giving access to Facebook to poor people in Latin America is like the Nestle infant formula scandal in Central America in the 1990s — let’s give free formula to new mothers for a month, wait until their breast milk dries up, and then enslave their families to pay for the formula their babies need to survive.
(Public-private partnerships sail under many flags: fascism, commandeering, privateering. But the end result is the same.)
But because the internet is abstract, and the threat less obvious, people fall into this trap. Whole countries fall into this trap. And if they are not careful, they will find themselves coerced, bullied, and controlled in ways their colonial ancestors could never have imagined.
Consider what Roberto Verzola, a noted Filipino academic, activist, and former political prisoner has to say on the topic:
The colonization of our countries that began in the 16th century hasn’t really stopped. It has just changed forms, coming in waves of globalization that intrude into our communities, impose their unwanted rule, and squeeze the wealth out of our people and environment. Each improvement in technology, each transformation of capital, creates new ways of extracting wealth from us, continually enriching those who control the technology and our economy while impoverishing us, destroying local livelihoods, ravaging our natural resources, and poisoning our environment. The first wave has ebbed, but we are still deep within the second wave, and the third wave has already started lapping our shores.
The entire article is well worth a read, by the way, especially if you’ve never looked at American influence abroad from the point of view of the plundered.
Some may, at this point, object to my doom and gloom narrative. “But look at the Arab Spring!” perhaps you say. “The internet enabled a region-wide revolt against tyranny! Now there’s some yummy disruption, fuck yeah!”
Um. Have there been any long-lasting changes as a result? Has the advent of social media in the Middle East done anything to free the people of those countries from the American-backed dictators who rule there?
Information is not freedom. Information is power. And if you have that power? Great. And if you don’t? Sucks to be you.
So who has the power in Africa or Latin America when you give them free internet? Not the local people. Large, mostly American, corporations get that power. And because of the public-private commandeering/privateering arrangement Washington has with Silicon Valley, the US government now has access to that data.
But the NSA would never share that data with a torturing regime, I hear you pout.
Oh yeah? Did you miss the article a few weeks ago about how the secret police in New Zealand shared data with the Bangladeshi secret police, data that led to the disappearance and torture of nearly a thousand peaceful dissidents, journalists, and bloggers?
Empire is empire. Colonies are colonies. And plunder is plunder.
So what’s the solution? Don’t give free internet to people? Keep them offline, for their own good? Pull a Cuba, and live in a perpetual time warp?
No. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But if you’re going to give people free access to the internet, don’t zero-rate it. Full access to the internet will still result in plunder, of course, but it will right the balance at least by a fraction. (Oh — and Facebook? You might offer to turn on encryption, too.)
Serious question: Can internet.org’s offer of HTTP-only access to Facebook be read as anything other than privateering?
We are the sum of our data. Politically. Socially. Economically. And as our lives move more and more online, control of that data means control of our lives — coercion on a scale so unimaginable people struggle to conceive that it’s actually happening, and right in front of our eyes.
Primitive peoples when first exposed to photography objected that the magic black box was “stealing their souls.” This observation may seem facile or naive but it holds a grain of truth: Information technology is robbing us of our humanity. Of our soul. Of what makes us more than the sum total of our geolocation data, iTunes purchases, and supermarket loyalty card bonuses.
And when we talk about giving free internet to poor people, we are offering them a Faustian bargain: Join the Book of Faces and chatter with your friends. Tell us everything about yourself. Upload your life, confess to Mark Zuckerberg, your new high priest. Why, it’s build-your-own-dossier time! In return we’ll offer you cheap, degrading thrills and a hand-held distraction from your social ills, and when it comes time to purge people who hold political opinions dangerous to the established order — guess what! We’ll know where to find you.
So. Where does that leave us? How do we prevent data imperialism from sweeping the globe, enslaving unsuspecting peasants to the privateering giants of Silicon Valley? (Because note: unless you’re a billionaire, you’re one of those peasants, too.)
Verzola offers a clue. Towards the end of his essay, he writes:
The first Spanish colony was set up in the Philippines in 1565. Over the next three centuries, colonization would encroach on most of the archipelago, except the Muslims of Mindanao and the upland indigenous tribes. Isolated rebellions would occur but could not shake Spanish rule. In 1864, a public manifesto by a Filipino priest began a Propaganda Movement, which eventually awakened our people’s anti-colonial consciousness. In 1896, a full-scale revolution broke out. By 1898, the revolution had for all intents and purposes defeated Spanish colonialism.
It took some three hundred years before we Filipinos shook off the colonial mentality that immobilized most of our people and made them vulnerable to Spanish rule. The campaign for the Filipino mind took another thirty years to win. Wihin three years of anti-colonial armed struggle against Spain, victory was in sight.
The struggle to unmask the colonial monster was ten to a hundred times more difficult than the struggle to bring it down.
Let us keep this lesson in mind today, when we are yet at the early stages of unmasking the monster of globalization. Let not the seeming immensity of this task cloud our vision of the future, when our communities and nations shall at last be free to chart their own destinies guided by the principles of ecology, social justice and self-determination. [emphasis mine]
This is why the British Army has just deployed 1500 social media “warriors.” It’s why the Pentagon invests millions of dollars in Metal Gear, persona management software, and whatnot. It’s why the TPP must pass in order to shut down dissent. Control of online discourse is mission critical in Washington — because the only way to maintain global hegemony is to maintain the world’s faith in the myth of “opportunity for all,” “information is freedom,” blah blah blah. Simply by pointing out the falsehood we cause the entire system to collapse.
He who speaks the truth has the power to destroy this third wave of plunder. The only question is: Will anyone listen?