I have had the email address firstname.lastname@example.org for eleven years. I first opened it when I started touring with my book, “Diary of a Political Idiot.”
It was useful to me to have a Yahoo! account — actually, I had two of them — because my email address in Serbia, email@example.com, was undependable and often could not be reached at all. My friend Stephanie Damoff opened the account for me in New York.
The old geographical political scheme of the former Yugoslavia was often simply not recognized by Internet service providers. Serbia, as the country of the aggressors, was commonly unrecognized, an outlaw state simply not in the databases. For instance, I could not enter the US Library of Congress because my national ID was invisible to librarians. Submitting visas at airports was commonly troublesome, not because the visa was wrong because my country was simply absent from the airport computers.
That was one of the reasons I chose the email name “political idiot.” In ancient Greece, the classical “idiot” was not mentally ill, but someone who was a non person in the earliest democratic regime. Of course the women of ancient Greece were non-participants, out of the loop of voting and public debate.
Allegedly things have improved in the past twenty centuries. When people read my internet “Diary of a Political Idiot,” they identified with the situation of a citizen living in a benighted society without access to free information. Blogs had not yet been invented and net access was a relative rarity everywhere.
During the 1990s wars in ex-Yugoslavia, my war diary spread worldwide, mostly through activist emailing-lists. Internet users in the Balkans busily scrounged up servers and addresses, reacting to sanctions, martial law, blackouts and aerial bombings of the technical infrastructure. By stark contrast, an address hosted by a major commercial server like Yahoo! was a haven of security and stability.
And so it remained, for all these years, except for the minor technical issues which affected all the subjects of the Yahoo! kingdom equally.
That is, until ten days ago, when suddenly my Yahoo addresses — i had two of them(, one public and one rather unpublicized — both disappeared. My email still worked, but I had become invisible to the Internet; my account was not seen in the Yahoo! database. While I continued my usual online habits, the Yahoo server was declaring to my friends and family that I didn’t exist. Facebook, for instance, couldn’t find me, and sent stiff pop-up notes demanding that I have a working email. The implicit threat there was, of course, that Facebook would also obliterate me as a nonexist Internet nonperson.
When I wrote to the Yahoo administrators, paying for help, they immediately assumed that the account had been hacked and re-routed to another address. Of course this kind of identity-theft is epidemic now, as we all know. No such luck. My problem baffled the first layer of Yahoo! tech support, who had never seen such a mishap.
In the meantime I made haste to save my data and erased some of it. Only to discover my account springing back to life, with all the “erased” data inside it. One of the accounts had been repaired by Yahoo engineers, it seems. The other account still does not exist; somehow, it’s been expunged.
People advise me to migrate to Google Gmail, if I’m unhappy with the quality of this particular free service. That’s not the point; it’s not that Yahoo! is incompetent, but that it has civil disorder, it’s become a platform for internal attacks. Other people, a bit more street-wise about the contemporary hack scene, urge me to abandon my real name.
Of course the administrators suspect a hack, but they’re not at all likely to tell me the technical particulars of how Yahoo! was compromised in an attack against me. It’s security-by-obscurity in which we pretend that the troubles don’t exist. However, this is like expecting sex harassment to go away because people politely don’t talk about it.
I feel betrayed and angry: I don’t want to use a pseudonym for my public work and ideas. I stand for these ideas. I managed to survive the criminal regime of Milosevic in Serbia in the nineties, as a dissident, as a Woman in Black. I never went underground or used a nom-de-guerre; my opposition was principled and public.
I wrote during all these years about war crimes, genocide in Srebrenica, using my real name, and in my own name. One of my major issues in pursuing Internet activism was to not allow the mainstream Serbian politicians and press to do all my talking for me. I wanted to speak for myself. If the Internet was invisible to the Milosevic regime of the 1990s, it was because of their ignorance, not because I was covert.
On my own blog, I commonly write about Serbia, Italy, Brazil, USA — wherever life takes me, from a personal perspective.
However, the Internet has changed with the times. We have entered a contemporary, troubled era of major hacking, leaks, and street-level cyberwar. I don’t flatter myself that any organized government is repressing my modest email account. I think I am just a collateral damage of some ankle-biter hacker teen who dislikes, for instance, my gay-friendly views. Maybe the foreign sound of my name is annoying. It probably took five minutes’ work for him to track my accounts and reset some obscure system parameters. It’s simple hacker vandalism, like slashing car-tires.
I don’t intend to step down in my Don Quixote fight with the windmills. Internet was that place that saved my life, because I could go public, and international publicity was my best protection. The Internet profoundly changed my life, and not only mine.
Internet today has become big and potent place where important battles are fought and won. I am proud to be one of the pioneers who believed that Internet could make a difference in the world, which it indeed did. But not all threats to free expression come from nation-states.
This weekend at a hacker conference in Florence, Italy, Richard M. Stallman, that long-haired grandfather of free software, loudly expressed his extreme concern for the human rights of the citizens of the world. He warned of the abuse potential of the massive unpaid-service providers, the search engines, the data-mineable clouds, and the other new, sophisticated infrastructures of the contemporary world wide web. Even though I have heard Stallman speak about the civil implications of the free software movement, I associated him with the thriving Belgrade scene of geek pirates, people who came out of the dungeons of the country held for years under sanctions. Only now is it dawning on me that the world wide web is no longer the Internet electronic frontier. It’s not a place where people blinking in the darkness of state oppression will suddenly find the light of true global liberty. Instead, it’s the world of the digital natives, which is indeed high-tech and globalized, but also a rather tough arena of demagoguery, privacy abuse, mob vigilantes and political violence.
This once-new media has not lost its attraction for me, but this incident of being shunted aside and obliterated with a few mouse-clicks has revealed to me what is at stake. The situation is what it is, and it won’t be changed back. The machinery is different but the principles are still the same.
I want to keep my address with my own name as an act of affirmative protest. And I am inviting you to join me. Do not go underground, do not hide; refuse intimidation by whatever means necessary. Idiots or not, we should all live in truth.