* Below is my most recent column for CounterPunch Magazine.
Last month, 500 famous authors signed a petition protesting the encroachments of the all-pervasive, techno-surveillance culture that is covering the earth with hidden eyes and ears, like a metastasized Stasi run amok. We’re talking heavy literary lumber here: Nobel Prize-winners, critic list-toppers, best-sellers – big names calling on the UN to create “an international bill of digital rights.”
The authors state the indisputable truth: the “fundamental human right” of personal privacy “has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations.” They rightly declare that “a person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”
Of course, one might like to see those “democratic rights in real space” applied a bit more vigorously in these days of airport x-rays, mandatory drug tests, “indefinite detention,” “extrajudicial execution,” “free speech zones,” etc. The accelerating degradation of “real space” liberties hardly inspires hope for preserving freedom in the virtual realm. Still, no sensible person would dispute the very worthy goals espoused in the petition.
And yet, a cankerous old worm of skepticism keeps creeping in. Especially when the petitioners declare that this assemblage of Tolstoyan speakers of truth to power is not actually “against government.” Good gracious no! As Danish writer Janne Teller told the Guardian: “This initiative must be seen as helping governments, who like to preserve democracy in the western world.”
Now, you rubes out there probably think that “governments” are actually prime culprits in the mass evisceration of privacy. But no; it seems our good-hearted, democracy-preserving leaders are victims: helpless babes manipulated by their sinister intelligence services, who, Teller tells us, “abuse power.” (Power that has been given to them by, er, governments.) Not to worry, though: a nice UN resolution — and the stinging moral censure of petitioners like Iraq War supporter Ian McEwan, ethnic profiling enthusiast Martin Amis, and William Boyd, author of the latest “literary” sequel to the saga of James Bond, state assassin extraordinaire — will doubtless bring these rogue services to heel. Then our noble rulers will be free at last to pursue their tragically frustrated dreams of peace, prosperity, equality and justice.
But wait; what about the literary luminaries’ warning against “technological developments … by corporations” which suck up private data for profit? Oddly enough, the petition was coupled, as part of a one-two punch, with an “open letter” written by civic-minded corporate citizens such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, demanding “sweeping changes in surveillance laws” to “restore confidence” in companies like, well, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, whose sole reason for existence is to mine private data for corporate profit.
Here our earnest authors come up against a very 21st-century conundrum: the ever-widening notion that the fate of our liberties should be taken out of the hands of governments and given to … corporations and oligarchs. This is the logic behind the move by Glenn Greenwald and other dissident superstars to “partner” with hi-tech oligarch Pierre Omidyar, “leveraging” Greenwald’s control of Edward Snowden’s NSA documents to create a profitable new media venture. This would be the same Omidyar whose PayPal cut Wikileaks off at the financial knees in its hour of greatest peril, whose “microfinancing initiatives” have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor in India and who now appears driven to monetize dissent in the same way he’s monetized poverty relief. It’s unlikely that hard-hitting exposes of hi-tech corporate chicanery will feature overmuch at Pierre’s new plaything.
But even the exposure of government misdeeds is to be kept within discreet limits by our new-style, media-savvy dissidents, who, like Greenwald, constantly assert they would never publish secrets that might “harm national security” or interfere with the “legitimate operations” of our neo-Stasis. Guardian editor and dissident hero Alan Rusbridger made that clear in his recent appearance before a Parliamentary committee investigating the Snowden revelations. As Arthur Silber, one of the most insightful political writers of our day, notes, the many press plaudits for Rusbridger’s “bold” testimony overlooked the editor’s shocking admission that the Guardian has only published “one percent” of the Snowden material, while dutifully consulting “the FBI, the GCHQ, the White House and the Cabinet Office on more than 100 occasions before the publication of stories.” Rusbridger also assured MPs that his paper will soon stop publishing stories from the Snowden cache.
Greenwald promises that his upcoming book on Snowden will provide a few more all-important revelations that the public absolutely must know (but which he must unfortunately withhold from us until the sale date). Yet as Silber points out, even with a few extra dollops of data here and there, it’s now obvious that only a tiny percentage of the massive Snowden archive of spy-state malfeasance will ever be revealed.
As always, our betters – in this case, not government apparatchiks but knee-capping oligarchs and government-consulting journalists – will let us know whatever modicum of truth they deem fit for our limited understanding. Or as another, long-dead literary luminary once said: four legs good, two legs better.