Heather Brooke: antitrust legislation needed to keep the internet free

Heather Brooke is a fighter. She fought – and won – to expose Parliamentary expenses in the UK. As a transparency advocate, she criticized Julian Assange, who – in her opinion – lead WikiLeaks to betray the core values of the movement for radical accountability – and had to face severe criticism from supporters. As a net freedom activist, she recently wrote a book called ‘The Revolution Wil Be Digitised’ about the ‘information war’ going on between those who want to decentralize power and reshape democracy, and those that oppose changes. A battle whose result can alter the face of the Internet forever. The International Journalism Festival spoke to her in a Skype call. Heather will speak at the journalism festival in Perugia in two different events on Friday 27 April.

By Fabio Chiusi

Miss Brooke, why do you think ‘the revolution will be digitised’? Isn’t giving such an important role to the Internet an instance of what Nathan Jurgenson calls ‘digital dualism’, i.e. an undue separation of the online and offline worlds and activities?

A lot of people feel that their lives are more real online than they are in reality, and they feel they have more freedom online than they do in the real world. And maybe that’s why people become activists for a free Internet, because they feel they’ve come closer to whatever their true identity online is in a way that they couldn’t achieve in the real world. But for me the reason it’s called that is because I’m talking of the revolutionary quality of digitization. And I say it’s revolutionary because once information is no longer a bunch of box files or papers in a filing cabinet but just bits that fly through the air, it means that it’s so hard for people in power to control it. And it’s always been true that knowledge is power. And so once it becomes very difficult for people in power to keep hold of information it means that it becomes very hard for them to keep hold of power, because power just flows out. The default now is zero cost for information to spread instantly around the globe. And in fact you have to pay money to stop it now. That’s incredibly disruptive and revolutionary.

Google’s Sergey Brin says that the principles of openness and universal access are under threat now more than ever. Do you agree that this is a particular time in history in which the very foundations of the Internet are under threat?

I do. That was the premise of my book, that we were in this very important stage in the history of humankind because we have this technology which for the first time enables us to communicate freely with everybody across the globe. The same technology can be used to build a global community where we can communicate in real time with each other and can be coopted by the old power structure to spy on ourselves. The great promise of the Internet can be turned on its head and become a great menace. And that’s what I call the ‘information war’. It was around the ownership of the internet that this battle is being fought. Who controls it: the people, a decentralized network of nodes able to communicate freely? Or is it going to be increasingly centralized and is the State going to be able to monitor all of our communications online? That’s what is really at stake.

Activists have been successful in some cases (against SOPA and PIPA, for example) in fighting bills that could threaten net freedom. But as soon as one is shelved, another is put forward. Furthermore, censorship is increasing globally. Should activists do something different, or something new?

The first thing is that you’re always at a disadvantage, because a bureaucracy is funded by the public to have permanent people there who can relentlessly advocate for their own interest. And that’s the problem: when bureaucracy stops working for the public interest. That’s what you definitely see with a lot of the bills that are coming forward from the intelligence agencies. Particularly in America, where we have this project called ‘Total Information Awareness’, which was in the 90s and 2000s. When it was publicized, it was very unpopular and it was supposedly killed. But in fact it never really was killed. It sort of just sank down into the bureaucracy of different American military and intelligence agencies. And now it has effectively come back again. That’s the danger: the bureaucrats remain there all the time, and even the politicians are at a bit of a disadvantage, because they come and go, yet the bureaucrats remain. So what’s really important is to have systemic changes. By that I mean, for example, putting into law that people have a right to access official information. Once freedom of information becomes part of the bureaucracy, the bureaucrats who are freedom of information officials have a vested interest in making sure that that law is there and that it actually works, because it kind of justifies their existence. One thing is to institutionalize rights to know.

Your experience shows it’s not easy to achieve that though.

The other thing is that, instead of always being on the defensive, we have to figure out a way to proactively put forward laws that give people protections that they thought they have or used to have, and make sure they have them in the future. We need to think again about privacy, for example, because it’s radically being redefined through digitization and through the Internet, and the law has not caught up with it at all, and what we end up with is just legislation that does not really address any of the problems of the people. It’s the same as surveillance: we’re becoming spied upon in a way that we never would have believed possible. And there doesn’t seem to be any law that’s there to protect the citizens from massive State surveillance. We have to collectively come up with some fundamental values around people’s right to privacy, the right to be left alone from government, and rights to free speech.

Don’t you think part of the problem is that maybe people don’t care that much about privacy anymore?

I think it’s wrong to say that ‘people know all the facts, and they decided they don’t care’. I think they actually just don’t even know, they don’t have all the facts. Because certainly the government is not going around advertising how much it spies on them. Apple and Facebook don’t make it easy to find out all the information they collect about you. It’s almost impossible to find out who they share or sell that information to. So I think that people cannot make an informed decision, because a) they don’t know who spies on them, and b) they don’t know where their information is going.

Thinking about the amount of attention attracted by Kony 2012, do you think that telling just part of the story and manipulating the facts is a legitimate strategy for activists to build consensus around a cause?

The interesting thing about the web is that it’s an amazingly revelatory technology. It does allow everybody to be a publisher. But the point is: when everybody can publish it doesn’t mean all information is equal. When we go out to a High Street shop we don’t think that every piece of clothing is exactly identical. We’ve come up with ways to judge the quality of a product. The thing is that we’re just getting used to the idea that information is a product, and we have to come up with criteria on which to judge which information is worth paying attention to and taking seriously and which isn’t. So we have to think: is this information new? Is it relevant? Is it trustworthy? Can I verify it? Who’s the source? If you’re a journalist you’re used to doing this as your job, but that’s going to become increasingly necessary for people online, because they just get hit with so much information, and if they don’t want to just sit there, manipulated by all different kinds of propaganda, they have to start getting tooled up on how to be a savvy information consumer.

In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei writes: «The internet is uncontrollable. And if the internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.» Do you agree?

I haven’t thought that through all the way, but initially thinking about it I think I would agree, because the point is: if something is wrong, as long as you have free flow of information, there will always be somebody who can point out that it’s wrong. And if they’re able to convince enough people that it’s wrong, they form a new interest group, which can then be a lobbying force. The problem is that there is an inevitable drive to monopolize or accrue power. You see it on the Internet: it started out as this kind of peer-to-peer free network, and inevitably it starts to concentrate and centralize. I think you have to make an active effort to keep things decentralized.

My reply would be that you can have a tool that is inherently free, but you still need people that act as free people.

I guess it’s the same as market, isn’t it? If you’re a capitalist you’ll say that as long as the market is totally free, then everything will work fine. But it’s almost impossible to have a totally free market. There will always be businesses that try to concentrate power, wealth and resources. And once they’ve done that, they try to stop their competitors having the same opportunity. The only way you can stop that happening is to bring in regulation or antitrust legislation. That’s the strange thing: you bring in regulation to maintain freedom. We’ve left the Internet free, and you can see now it is starting to concentrate into monopolies.

It is no exception to market rules.

Exactly.

You’re also a transparency advocate. Is the transparency movement in good shape?

Obviously there is a growing and global trend for not just radical transparency but also accountability. Politicians all over the world are finding themselves held more to account than I think they’re ever been held before. We have a London mayoral race and the candidates have all suddenly found themselves having to talk about what tax they pay, because tax avoidance has become a big issue in London. They have all promised they are going to publish their tax returns, and they haven’t done that before in Britain. Not all the people in power are happy about this, and that’s why at the same time we have this big push about greater transparency and people’s right to know and more accountability you’re also seeing this push back in terms of more surveillance, more efforts to try and control the Internet. There are two forces at work, and that’s why I called the book ‘the information war’.

And what about WikiLeaks?

The problem with WikiLeaks is that it’s been taken over by Julian Assange, and that is directly opposed to what the whole movement is meant to be about: decentralized power, collaboration, equality and transparency. Under Julian Assange, WikiLeaks has become exactly the opposite of all of these things: it’s become totally centralized, it’s become a hierarchy, it’s not transparent. And it’s not collaborative, but incredibly divisive in the transparency community, because anybody who dares to challenge or criticize Julian comes under severe fire from him. A person who’s meant to be a leader of a movement, which is what he claims to be, you’re meant to be about building and accruing allies, rather than going into the movement and being divisive. But that’s exactly what he’s been. I find that to be incredibly disappointing. A lot of people, including myself, had very high hopes for WikiLeaks. But the problem is power, and the way power corrupts people, and it doesn’t matter if they are in the military, the intelligence agencies, the government or they can be the head of WikiLeaks. The movement of radical transparency and accountability is not about putting a new person in charge, it’s about getting rid of the whole idea of hierarchal politics. It’s about decentralizing power.

I guess that’s also a reaction to the huge blowback that WikiLeaks had to suffer from governments, companies and a lot of media.

Coming under that amount of fire certainly has an impact. If you’re not a strong leader that’s going to make you retreat into a defensive position. But if you want to be the leader of a movement, you really got to live the values that you are trying to preach to people. There was a lot of support for WikiLeaks, a lot of people – including myself – were really disappointed about for example the way the American government responded to the cables publication, and then WikiLeaks getting kicked off the Amazon servers, and PayPal refusing to process its payments. But Julian has this unique ability to make enemies of people who were his supporters. And that’s why he’s ended up in this quite isolated position.

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