The State vs. the People? The dilemmas of the Internet for both the State and the Civil Society in the 21st Century.
// Posted by Tec on 02/19/2014 (8:50 PM)
Joshua Hurtado Hurtado
Being an IR student in the globalized, internet age, I find it deeply necessary to stop for a moment and think about how this new era in global politics can change the dynamics between the forms of political organization and the civil society. Having access to the internet means us, as citizens, have access to more information than ever before. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are better informed, but it does mean that there is more information at our disposal.
Information, I believe, is power. Knowing about yourself and others mean you know what you are able to do and what your limits are. The same could be said for others. This is why the actions of Julian Assange and his collaborators at Wikileaks and the actions of Edward Snowden against the NSA espionage program will have a profound effect on making us, global citizens with internet access, question the limits of State surveillance.
I should start by discussing the Wikileaks case. As Springer et al. tell us in Leaky Geopolitics (2012), what is important to analyze regarding the Wikileaks case is not whether it is works for good or for evil forces. The analysis should instead revolve around two central questions: “What are the merits of the material published by Wikileaks? It is often claimed that this material is already known – but we might ask, known to whom? There are multiple levels of information asymmetry. Second, what does the varied response to Wikileaks tell us about the nature of power and sovereignty?” (Springer, et al., 2012, p. 688). The argument posed against some of the revelations from Wikileaks was that it was already known information. The question, however, was to whom it was known. Many of those revelations were known only to government officials and to certain analysts, but they were certainly not known to the general public. Had the general public known the information released, most likely there would have been a sector from the civil society that would have raised complaints against the government for violations of human rights.
This argument is sustained in the old debate of security vs. freedom. Violations of human rights in other parts of the world, the US government would argue, were necessary to protect the population from harm. That is indeed an understandable argument, especially as the fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 made the general public willing to sacrifice some comfort and privacy in the name of security. But, personally, I consider it would be a blatant lie to its population if the US government said it does so only to protect them. Another reason, complementary if not more important than security, has to do with staying as the hegemonic power in the international system. There are other reasons, of course, but they will be addressed when the Snowden case is discussed.
The other question raised, about the nature of power and sovereignty, must be disussed now. There are some authors, like Milton Mueller in his book Networks and States (2012) that indicate that states have started to acknowledge the power the internet can give to perceived threats (whether in the forms of terrorist groups or simply civilian protests). As such, decision-makers have begun to consider forms of internet governance, which Mueller classifies as follows: protection of intellectual property, cyber-security, content regulation, and critical control of the Internet (Mueller, 2012). The revelations from Wikileaks are useful because they raise the possibility that the civil society can become empowered and can make more demands to those in government.
The access to internet and to the use and spread of knowledge is very important as it opens channels of communication to more people. Authoritarian states, such as China, could potentially be harmed by giving more freedom to its population and it could provoke civil unrest, which the rulers in China definitely do not want. States are becoming very wary of this issues. Happenings such as the Arab spring, which toppled authoritarian regimes (even though the subsequent regimes were not much better) have demonstrated political leaders around the world the possibilities of what can happen when civilian protesters have access to information and channels of communication. But even democratic states are considering more regulation, because leaks such as those by Wikileaks prove that some actions and misinformation are done purely for political reasons (Springer et al., 2012). Wikileaks, as such, represents a threat to both governments and corporations, who wish to keep some information secret from the public eye and are attempting to destroy Wikileaks by cutting off methods of financing and by suing the organization (Greenwald, 2010).
If hiding information relevant to the public so they can make an informed choice is already unethical, then the effects are much worse when the government is actively trying to gather all data from all people, even its own population. This is why the revelations made by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, have made such an impact. Not only did the NSA gather information from foes or possible threats, but they also spied on political allies and they gathered any information they deemed could give the United States an edge. In other words, they also took part in industrial espionage.
What changes this revelations will make in public perception remain to be seen. But as long as there is a public debate, one in which the civil society is engaged in, the revelations of the NSA will not have been in vain.
Greenwald, G., MacAskill, E., & Poitras, E. (2013, June 10). Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The Guardian. Retrieved on February 10, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance
Greenwald, G. (2010, March 27). “The war on WikiLeaks and why it matters”. Salon.com. Retrieved on February 10, 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.salon.com/2010/03/27/wikileaks/
Mueller, M. (2012) Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance. United States: The MIT Press.
Springer, et al. (2012). Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks. Geopolitics, 17. 681-711.