Internet Crimes

Recently I saw a movie on the life and death of Aaron Swartz, who is nowadays often called a martyr for the freedom of the Internet.

People, nations and governments like martyrs. They love them, they need them. Martyrs are part of our bipolar, black and white society constructed from good and bad guys, who always do good and bad deeds. Martyrs are those who have escaped our human condition, of being judged by people as people. Martyrs are beyond judgement, they become the scapegoats for our biggest failures, for the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt phrased it.

I don’t believe Aaron Swartz ever wanted to become a martyr. He just wanted to live within a world that he believed he could fix, a world that was technically malleable and hackable, where he could be active and ingenious, even if that reform effort might involve a few false steps.

I find it unjust, unfair, maybe even outrageous to treat his suicide as a martyrdom. The legal machinery that crushed Aaron Swartz could have crushed any of us, at least if we happened to get apprehended and charged within the USA. We need to pay due heed to the fates of those who get singled out as examples. The system by its nature represses hackers, freelance thinkers or Internet activists. Some will die of that mistreatment, especially if they are neglected, or shunned, or met with public indifference and numb stupidity. The exaggerated honor we pay to “martyrs” is a guilty, posthumous reparation for our failure to keep them alive.

More “Internet martyrs” are clearly on the way for a host of nations. Aaron Swartz was a particularly brilliant MIT “burglar” and was therefore repressed with particular vigor by an ambitious American prosecutor. But America has a huge prison system with millions of people behind bars — everyone but bankers, basically. If Aaron Swartz was still alive today, having pled guilty and gone to American prison for a felony, how much effort would we spend to get him out of jail, or to help him once he was free?

Prosecutors of all nations will always play fast and loose with computer crime laws, if they think that nobody is watching or cares. Recently, three bloggers in Serbia were condemned to one year of prison with a particular ingenious prosecutorial scheme. These bloggers, who were writing under their online nickname pseudonyms, made some sarcastic wisecracks about a right-wing filmmaker who is a darling of violent right-wing Serbian nationalist goons. They bloggers were promptly charged and convicted with hate crime and death threats of this author.

This is the exact sort of behavior that the EU would most like to see out of Serbia: vigorous defense of an imperiled author. They probably didn’t expect to see this kind of hate law applied in a vigorous defense of the government’s own apologists and some street-fighting right-wing extremists. However, the current Serbian government demonstrates a true genius for stealing the opposition’s clothes. So here is a case of online dissidents and university teachers being promptly condemned and sentenced as hooligans.

Most anything said or written can become a verbal crime, if the rule of law doesn’t mean much. Back in the Yugoslavian Communist regime, a poet could go to prison for a single word, if it was the wrong one; singing politically non correct song could land a private in court. No Communist ever wrote laws or doctrine to make that situation entirely clear. Legality would have defeated the entire purpose of a totalitarian atmosphere.

You just had to know what was sayable or unsayable, sense it, feel it. If you did not feel it, then you were either hopelessly stupid, or an enemy of the state. Both the stupid and the enemy were entirely expendable. They provided good practical examples for the others, to learn the everyday behavior for a society devoid of rules.

The modern Internet jungle quite reminds me of those lost days. Much like the victims of the Communist regime, the victims of the modern Internet can be pretty much anybody who somehow demands too much, in some awkward, embarrassing or disruptive way. The modern Internet is overrun with spies, hacker thieves, intrusive databanks, filters and censors. This is no longer a free and pristine electronic wonderland — any more than late-period Communism was all about being genuinely communal.

Of course Communist societies relentlessly described themselves as liberated and avant-garde, and they even claimed that everything was freely shared even when shops were empty. It took real struggle to realize that this blizzard of official rhetoric just didn’t coincide with people’s lived reality. Today’s Internet users haven’t gotten this far as yet; they still talk about their “free services,” as if not paying for commercial big-data spyware was somehow utopian.

Computer communication systems were not born free. The original freedom of the Internet came as a second-hand unplanned consequence, as the work of brave activists and hackers, and as a glitch.

It’s only when you transgress that you can fully feel and understand the borders, the limits. Aaron Swartz’s big mistake was to believe in the limitless possibilities of a media system, just because he was good at coding for it.

Serbian computer users also thought they could permanently outsmart the technically illiterate police and blinkered Communist court system. That worked, too, for about a generation’s time. However, the current Serbian government isn’t by no means a tottering Communist nomenklatura. Today’s Serbian state system and its enthusiastic majority voters do not consider the Internet any obstacle to their nationalist and Orthodox religious ambitions. If anything, the Internet helps to reveal who their enemies are, not that they had many doubts. The new state needs new enemies, and new martyrs, too.

The Internet was once an oasis for those who thought and spoke differently, a global arena of public opinion in which to demonstrate the power of the powerless. That’s not how it works in this decade. But maybe that is good news of a kind: as we lose our anonymity, that old Internet in which no one knew you were a dog, the chains of the dog’s masters also become more visible to everyone.

Serbia is so small and poor that the NSA could scarcely be bothered to spy on it, the NSA being busy spying on its major NATO allies in the EU. However, living out of the imperial limelight has both upsides and downsides for Serbia. The downside is that the modern Serbian state has all kinds of unaccountable power over virtual Serbian life, but the upshot is that the repressed Serbian bloggers are still alive. Their quarrel was too small to get them liquidated, for there just wasn’t all that much at stake.

Serbia lacks the public conscience of a major third-world player like Brazil, which fought for years for its own, national, internet civil rights constitution.

However, Serbia does have one good thing: genuine activism in the streets. Recently, Women in Black from Serbia had a lynch threat on Facebook. The porte parole of the serbian antiterror police on Facebook, addressing his usual audience of right-wing Facebook hooligans, advised them to beat up Women in Black in the streets instead of uselessly brawling with each other. Women in Black have always been the target of hate and violence and foul language, due to their persistent street presence. However, to have this customary behavior blatantly revealed to everyone on Facebook changed the situation, and the Serbian porte parole will be suspended from duty for his indiscretion. He might even be charged and convicted of something or other,since Women in Black are presssing charges.

There must be some difference between the three Serbian bloggers, who were convicted of death threats and hate speech while meaning no real harm other than sarcasm, and this policeman, an agent of the state who would rather like the state’s opponents to come to some extralegal harm at the hand of thugs. That difference is called “justice.” The more of that you have, the less need you have to loudly exult about all of your martyrs.

Italy: The Show Must Go On!

“I am convinced that behind the decisions of Grillo (suggested by his internet guru Casaleggio) exists a true subversive plan in Italy that could take us to a civil war.

If somebody doubts of what I am saying, just go to Youtube and look: ‘Gaia’ by Gianroberto Casaleggio. We are in the hands of two crazy people with secret missions. Mussolini’ s fascism compared to this was just a joke!”

This radical online comment, by some anonymous reader, reveals the fear that commonly generates confrontational extremes in Italian political history.

At this moment, when the Italian government has fallen yet again, the youngest premiere ever in Italy and even the EU is about to form a new government. Another online commentator points out: We had eight premieres in the past twenty years, and only two of them were elected by the Italian people.

The Italian electoral system is the major target of the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. The future premier Renzi doesn’t like it either, although he and Grillo agree on very little else. Italy has a long history of attempts to game the electoral system: populist movements, mafia conspiracies, back room intra-party deals, and maybe electronic “direct democracy” may get a chance.

Even without Berlusconi and his gaudy sex and corruption scandals, the Italian political scene is still a show. The general social climate of the country was obvious at the traditional television fiesta, the 64th San Remo music festival. The usual pop stars, crooners and show girls were elbowed aside by political disruptive banners, while a panoply of good and bad political types crowded together into the first row to seize a chance to be on TV.

On the festival’s opening night, two spectators threatened to throw themselves from the top of the stage to their death, plummeting right into the audience. They demanded that their letter be read out loud by the host of the show in front of millions of RAI television viewers.

These histrionic suicides wanted to draw attention to the plight of unemployed workers in Italy — which they did. This wasn’t the first time that desperate workers have threatened suicide during the music show. Italian viewers are a crowd highly sensitive to social injustice, enthusiastic members of trade unions and people’s movements. Somehow, however, they never form a national government capable of favoring the interests of working people. Why is this, I wonder? Am I missing something?

Many things have changed in Italy since the M5S Five Star Movement unexpectedly became a significant presence in the Italian Parliament. The new movement, which organized through weblogs and street rallies, managed to elect large numbers of youthful political amateurs and women. However, electing legislators isn’t the same as an ability to rule or manage the state. More

Snowden’s Berlin

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In English, in French

I attended a two-day conference in Berlin, “As Darkness Falls: theory and practice of self empowerment in the age of digital control.” It threw me into complete distress.

http://www.einbruch-der-dunkelheit.de/en/index.php

Sometimes it’s entirely necessary to speak behind closed doors. I remembered the women’s activists international meetings, where activists from all over the world told each other of personal experiences of killings torture and rape. How we would share sorrow and empathize, befriend formal enemies, and make exit strategies, then cry in a final catharsis.

But here in Berlin, after the angry speeches of hackers, cypherpunks, activists, philosophers of communication, coders…. I could feel my Internet optimism crumbling. The Snowden case placed a dark, troubled perspective on our post-Internet era.

It’s covert surveillance and violated privacy, versus freedom of speech and the public visibility of citizens. As an addicted activist and internet user, I was cordially warned against using almost every service I’ve already been cheerfully using for years.

How to stay connected and publicly visible, without being controlled, used and abused by the metadata corporations and the secret police scanners? Sure, some computer-security experts know all about these issues, but my friends and feminist activists are still digital beginners! I had to stare in dread into the screen of my own beloved laptop, as my Facebook profile suddenly erupted with unsolicited posts thrown my way by sinister algorithms I’ve never heard of. During the event, my Mac Air suddenly crashed, then came back to life displaying the date: January 1, 2012. Wasn’t that year supposed to be the end of the world? Maybe the year 2012 was just the Armageddon for the free and open Internet, and now it’s already 2014!

Is this big-data Internet of 2014 — the new post-digital, Post-Internet — an oppressive system entirely typical of failed and managed democracies? Will the Post-Internet become the main antisocial weapon for a future neo feudal totalitarian regime… Or is there is a way of saving the precious democratic values and structures of civil rights, so often casually routed-around by the Internet? Did we “empower the individual” so much that our states and nations failed, and now we’re nakedly exposed to the secret police and the machines of the globalized ultra-rich?

Dystopias are always more convincing than utopias, skepticism has stronger words than optimism, while Berlin in the winter of 2014 is a place where daylight is precious and rare in the snow storms, with temperatures below freezing.

Nevertheless, cyber-dissidents, political refugees flock here to Berlin to free their floating anxiety, exchange their encrypted codes, help each the intricacies of national laws and to name-check their fellows in prison.

What’s more, Edward Snowden is now appearing on German TV, having become a genuine political figure rather than a dramatic refugee. Snowden remarks that somebody may well kill him for one reason or another, but he has no more big bundles of data to reveal to the public. Everything is already public in the hands of the press politicians and citizens and, well, the Post-Internet.

It’s never easy to become a dissident or a defector. Some cyber-activists and hackers have already cracked up and even commit suicide from the pressures of political activism and legal countermeasures. Edward Snowden seems to be a more solid and inspiring figure than his predecessors and colleagues. Calm and precise as usual, Snowden conveys the message that it is now up to everybody else in the world besides him to do something about all this trouble he showed us.

What can we practically do, besides trembling and shivering in folk-paranoia? Are we empowered enough, maybe too empowered and not well-enough organized? Who are “we,” who are our allies, and what is the likely or desirable outcome of this new, global-scale struggle in the long history of mankind? Are we all supposed to become Anonymous activists, smiling at the surveillance cameras in the streets while we strike back from our bedrooms and garages? Or are we are supposed to abandon the keyboards, flood into the roads, streets, and squares, occupy the banks, trade Bitcoins for bread?

Resistance methods are not a recipe for civil law and order. Reading history and theories is never enough, while the world has more than its share of stupid, dangerous, egocentric martyrs. Describing political reality is half way to solving a political problem. The Post-Internet is a potentially collective intelligence, but it’s also collective stupidity. It is not a machine entirely separate from us, and has always been a mirror that shows us to ourselves in real-time.

After the darkness fell on my Darkness event, I visited the Stasi museum in Berlin. This “museum” is simply the re-purposed headquarters of the Stasi secret police, the administrative center of analogue espionage and surveillance during the Cold War.

Our modern digital spies should be ashamed by the perfection of this system, where everybody was spying on everybody all the time, and even the political prisoners in the secret prisons were forced to inform against their own jailers. Our spies are lazy and slipshod digital button-pushers, mere code jockeys, while the Stasi files were manually written and preserved in big stacks of brown sacks.
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Airport Homeland: Snowden Case

I lost my homeland in the fall of Yugoslavia. My passport changed five times even though I never changed my home address. I could not enter the Library of Congress in the USA because my country did not exist in their computer.

Since then, I have spent many hours dealing with the consequences of having no state. I stood in endless embassy queue to get visas. In great world airports, full of busy people from other nations, my documents would be double checked, triple-checked, sometimes even denied. Once I was deported from a train and kept in an improvised local prison because I lacked a proper stamp in my passport. All this occurred without me committing any offense against my own country or any other country.

When the world is in war on terror, or when countries sanction other countries, or when states constrain their own citizens, this becomes a new normality.

Oddly, airports, those nation-free zones, often develop as the safest places to live in the turmoil of nations in war. I spent many hours in those belts of nobody’s land which today are like cities of their own, where most anyone can eat drink shop sleep and wash, provided that you have a valid bank card. Electronic money is far beyond nations by now, the common denominator for war and peace.

In these last weeks, the famous and also notorious dissident Edward Snowden has been living in an airport, in Moscow. In the same time period, an anonymous Mexican woman has been quietly dwelling in Cancun airport . Snowden has all the world press in his face and international spies on his back, all of them waiting for his next move. The Mexican woman was spotted by airport security by chance. However, since her papers are in order, there are no legal grounds to deport her from the airport.

Snowden is a man the age of my daughter. What he did belongs to the new era of fighting for truth and justice. We hit the streets, made door to door campaign with paper leaflets. Nowadays secret documents flow on the internet to raise awareness of timeless political issues. Recently, voters changed the profile of Italian parliament, after many years of vain attempts to overthrow the old class of corrupt politicians, in an Internet-based political party campaign.
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E-Stonia

photos by Bruce Sterling

First things first: oh, you world travelers, for pleasure or for work, never, ever fly Baltic Airlines. First they will stiff you by making you pay sixty euros to carry regular-sized hand luggage. You will note their particular eagerness to pounce on innocent non-Baltic travellers, especially haplessYankees with credit cards.

During the flight you can expect to be charged for the air you breathe, since they don’t even give free water.

Finally, god forbid if something goes wrong with your flight and ticket, for Baltic Airlines will gladly maneuver you into buying a heavily-priced new one. Fleeing home via Baltic Airlines beats prison and deportation, but not by much.

Decades of Soviet occupation leave some deep cultural habits. Despite the proud independence and nationalism of the three independent Baltic republics, it hasn’t been that long since 1991. It’s hard to find any mishap in Estonia that isn’t some blamed on Russians. If the roads are bad (and they are bad enough to burst tires), it’s the Russian roads. When the coffee is lousy (the imported Italian coffee is quite good), then it’s the communist coffee. If the storks are too big and dangerous, it’s because they were bred to an ungainly size by the Russians.

I lived under Communism, but not the Soviet kind. The Estonians saw the real deal hard core of totalitarianism, the kind with mass deportations, mass shootings and mass hunger. That kind of regime doesn’t leave mere “traces” in society, it leaves trenches. The Estonian nationality barely escaped being one of Europe’s submerged or even extinct nations. Well before any Soviets showed up they were gleefully trampled by Swedes, Poles, Danes — back when they were harmless pagans, they were even massacred by Christian Crusaders.

In the seventies in Rome, I once took part in a magazine called “La Citta di Riga,” an Italian pun which refered to the capital of Latvia and also meant “the city of lines.” This conceptualist magazine was an art project through which period artistic luminaries such as Francisco Clemente, Alighiero Boetti, Achille Bonito Oliva, Fabio Mauri, Umberto Silva, etc, wanted to change the world. Since this was the 1970s, concepts were considered more important the materialist objects or political policies. “The City of Riga” was a distant, romantic place for these Roman radicals of the Cold War days, a city carrying the flag of the globalist artsy utopia.
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