January 10, 2017

The Fall of Cyber Liberalism and the Promise of Cyber Activism



Much of the literature analyzing the effect of the Internet and digital communications on the lives of private citizens has advanced the notion that hyper-connectivity is a positive force for social change and cohesion. It is a force to give power to the powerless. Empirical observations, however, might give us a different reading of the last twenty years. Instead of being solely a source of freedom and participation, the Internet and connectivity have been points of conflict.

Governments use the Internet and our dependence on it to limit participation, activism, and civil engagement. The most recent example of this is Russia’s use of digital communications as a fire hose of propaganda, its hack of the DNC, and its use of both willing and unwitting intermediaries, like WikiLeaks, to achieve illiberal ends. Other governments, like Egypt and Turkey, use the Internet to deny basic freedoms and stifle protests.

Yet this is not a problem unique to authoritarian countries. In Canada, police in the province of Quebec actively surveilled journalists who were investigating corruption within Quebec’s police department. The United Kingdom’s intelligence agency illegally monitored Amnesty International and in November passed a bill that gives the British government the widest powers of surveillance in the Western world. Among these powers include the legalization of breaking into computers and mobile phones to permit access to stored personal data, even in situations where the person being scrutinized is not under any suspicion of wrongdoing.

While many thought the Internet would be a path to liberalization and freedom, instead we have seen the rise of digital repression, fake news, and constraints on access that make the promise of digital liberalism a Sisyphean challenge. Cyber liberalism is under attack – including from those we would expect to champion it. What can be done to revive it?

Our colleague Will Wilkinson challenges us to revive liberalism in the age of Trump.  Our intellectual infrastructure has been depleted to such an extent that we no longer can separate truth from facts. The deeper crisis is taking place in academic and policy circles surrounding the great project of Internet and digital access.

The political theorist (and Niskanen Center scholar) Jacob Levy points out that we are in an era of post-truth politics. As he explains, there is a power in telling a lie that is then repeated by others. This is a form of subordination, and seems to be the likely course of American politics in the near future. We see this project becoming commonplace, with outlets like Russia Today (RT) celebrated for parroting the government line, while independent media organizations are vilified for daring to speak truth to power.

Turkey, Russia, and Egypt have rooted out divergent journalist communities. The United States and other western democracies are not far behind. This is not because of direct state intervention, but rather through the politics of ratings and investments, and surveillance in the guise of protection from terrorists.

The project of cyber liberalism, and the promise associated with digital activism, is failing and cannot be revived without a sober analysis of the challenges it faces. Among these are extending and protecting digital freedoms, as well as promoting access to those that need it most. We need information and data to move beyond the stifling hyper futurist predictions that have been so wrong.  While the possibilities of digital access can be deduced, the reality of our current situation tempers the excitement that colors most analysis of our digital futures.

The UN has declared access to the Internet a human right. But access does not come free from government intervention. The liberal project would push this independence as the first step to projecting a vibrant civil society, but in all the grumbling about fake news and post-truth politics, no one seems to offer substantive solutions beyond Google Chrome extensions. We aim to change that. Here at the Niskanen Center, we are embarking on a project to redirect the general and misguided focus on cyber war towards the issue of cyber repression.

Many years ago, David Brin wrote a piece—“The Transparent Society”—in which he foresaw the challenges we face today. He described a future in which cameras dot every street corner, surveillance drones blacken the skies, and ubiquitous sensors permit real-time collection, and analysis, of citizens’ lives. That future, he surmised, was inevitable. However, all was not lost. Brin recognized that throughout all of human history, there has been but one effective mechanism for guarding against the march towards dystopia: criticism.

A free and open society necessitates a respect for dissenting opinions. That is why free speech is so vital to the defense of democracy; it allows citizens to keep one another, and their government, accountable for their actions. And it is accountability that serves as the strongest bulwark against sliding towards a closed and illiberal society. Accountability, Brin notes:

is no side benefit. It is the one fundamental ingredient on which liberty thrives. Without the accountability that derives from openness—enforceable upon even the mightiest individuals and institutions—freedom must surely die.

To that end, we are initiating a new project to document this growing challenge through the creation of a unique, comprehensive data set and subsequent analysis of what cyber repression really looks like – who is doing it, where, and how. Our results will inform policy responses and activism, to push back against repression and stand up for a revival of liberalism.

The Internet can be used for ill, but it can also be used to ensure those who would tear the open society apart are called to account. In a post-truth world, accountability is more important than ever.