In 2004, one of my favourite Machinima “Red vs Blue” released a short called “Real Life vs the Internet” showing the disparities between our online and offline existence. One of my favourite sections is the discussion on politics. In real life you usually tend to avoid the topic, while political arguments online tend to escalate quickly to “you deserve to die! Die!” The video is still strangely relevant (change Nader with Jill Stein and the same thing applies today).
Political discussion online tends to be acrimonious to say the least, and often follows offline divisive lines: left v right, LGBT+ rights, reproductive rights, health, etc. What interests me is what we could loosely call digital rights, political issues that are specifically or predominantly related to our digital existence online. These can intersect with offline politics, but for the most part these have tended to diverge with mainstream political views, so often people complain about lack of representation of their online opinions.
But how do we define Internet-related politics? I would class several topics as being of political interest to online users: privacy, surveillance (public and private), data protection, intellectual property (predominantly copyright, but also software patents), net neutrality, freedom of expression, security, transparency, openness, cybercrime, and abuse. In mainstream politics, these subjects run through the full political spectrum, with some subjects falling squarely into traditional left v right political disputes. Historically, conservatives tend to favour stronger regulation and control, which affects subjects such as surveillance, security and cybercrime. Liberals have been more open about digital liberties, freedom of expression, and copyright, favouring less control.
However, for a while it seemed like for the most part digital rights and Internet politics operated outside of most of these existing structures, at some point it became viable to consider some sort of Internet-native political movements to develop. In some form, civil society organisations working in digital issues became political, with EFF, Creative Commons, ORG, and many others clearly favouring a set of principles that would often defy political comparisons with mainstream ideas. Then we have the rise of the Pirate Party in 2006, the very first Internet-centric movement that had a very specific digital agenda in favour of loosening copyright enforcement. The Pirate Party movement gained some momentum and managed to even get a few people elected to the European Parliament in Sweden and Germany. While it started as a single-issue party against copyright maximalism, the Pirate Party has been moving towards different agendas, such as supporting net neutrality and supporting privacy and user rights.
But outside of the Pirate Parties, it is difficult to find similar organised political institutions, perhaps with the exception of New Zealand’s Internet Party, created by Kim Dotcom to support digital rights, but it could be seen as mostly an attempt for Dotcom to avoid extradition to the US on copyright infringement charges.
Outside of these parties the most politically engaged movements were Anonymous and Wikileaks which seemed to be fronting a digital resistance that caught fire in the shape of the Arab Spring. For a glorious moment in time, it seemed like the Internet could have a real effect offline, and Internet politics became mainstream politics with the publication of the US diplomatic cables, the release of the Collateral Murder video, and the prominence of various successful Anonymous actions such as Operation Payback.
Between 2010-2013, we could argue that there was a golden age of Internet politics in which there appeared to be some rough consensus on a centre-left and centre-right axis in various subjects.
- In copyright, open source, open content and open data had won the debate for more rational level of protection. SOPA/PIPA had been defeated in the US, and there was widespread opposition to ACTA, which eventually was also defeated.
- Internet transparency was at its best, with overwhelming support for Wikileaks and similar projects that were designed to make governments accountable. Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on NSA surveillance practices becomes the pinnacle of the transparency movement.
- Privacy was generally considered as a good thing. Data protection was seen as a positive balance to private surveillance, but it was ineffective, and there was a recognition that enforcement should be given more power.
- The regime of limitation of intermediary liability was at its peak, it was generally understood that it should be maintained, and platforms should be allowed to operate with some degree of independence.
- Freedom of expression should be protected at all cost.
- Online abuse and trolling were problems, but they could be moderated without regulation.
- Cybercrime and hacking were also an issue, but did not necessitate new legislation.
- Independent online groups like Anonymous were encouraged as they were doing good work, even if they sometimes engaged in practices that broke the law, and were seen by some as nothing but lawless vigilantes.
- There should be only one Internet, which should exist relatively independent of national jurisdiction.
The above consensus was evidently not universal, but at least it seemed to form the basis of most political action at the time. Needless to say, there is nothing resembling an online consensus right now.
It’s difficult to chart how the consensus was broken, but it is clear that there were already fractures in the structure as the offline ideological leanings of various movements were incompatible with one another. Various anarchist and libertarian tendencies seemed to co-exist at some level with “statist-lite” socialist ideals, for the most part there seemed to be an agreement that the real enemy was too much regulation, as governments do not understand the Internet. However, at some point various splits became more marked, and nowadays it would be impossible to bring together all of the online political tendencies. The political polarisation offline has also been translated into an online polarisation.
I would say that one of the largest differences in online politics right now is the pre-existent trans-Atlantic split between the more libertarian US, and the more regulatory European Union, which can be seen in the privacy v free speech debate. The creation of the right to be forgotten, and more recently the enactment of the GDPR, have resulted in an insurmountable split between those who see the interventionist EU as a direct affront to freedom of speech. For the most part I tend to be pro-GDPR and pro-RTBF, while a non-negligible number of people I respect are completely against these new regulations, mostly on freedom of speech grounds.
The same has happened with regards to placing restrictions on online abuse, with European countries favouring rules against hate speech and online abuse, while for a long time Americans chose a “free speech first” path. But interestingly, even in the US there is increasingly a recognition that the “everything goes” approach to hate speech online hasn’t been working, and in the era of Trump, fake news and online disinformation platforms should be more proactive in policing speech. From my perspective, it has been interesting to see how more restrictions have been enacted by platforms, in no small part as a result of vociferous online pressure from users who are sick and tired of online abuse of free speech. Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Google have started to take action, and as we speak they have removed a lot of content from the vile InfoWars website. I never thought that I would live to see Americans arguing in favour of removal of content, but a vocal number of people are doing just that.
A huge reason for this shift is that GamerGate brought about the rise of the alt-right, and a torrent of online abuse that took advantage of the more permissive practices in online platforms. Moreover, it has become clear that Russian state actors have been taking advantage of social media and trying to spread discord, discontent and animosity in everything from Brexit to racial tensions, so there has been growing recognition that something should be done to at least curb some of the abuse.
The old political consensus was also broken, and the centre-left alliances obliterated. Leftists in the UK are split between Corbynistas and centrists, and the only politics that matter is the split between Remain and Leave in the Brexit debate. In the US, there is still strong animosity against those who did not support Hilary, and the Bernie v Hilary split is still dividing opinion. Some parts of the left are being consumed by gender wars and anti-Semitism debates. Wikileaks, once the darling of the left, has become a stalwart of the pro-Trump online brigade, most of the people using the #FreeAssange hashtag nowadays are also into #PizzaGate, #QAnon, and #MAGA. Anonymous, while anarchic in nature, seems to have gone very quiet, perhaps due to GamerGate, with a non-negligible Anonymous contingent going to the alt-right.
So online politics appears to be completely split nowadays between two major camps, forming a division that mirrors the offline political mess we’re in. On one side we have the libertarian right that still dreams of an entirely open Internet where anyone can be openly racist, all watched over by benign billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, where everyone can run their own cryptocurrency without regulation. On the other side we have an increasingly pro-regulation camp that falls on a leftist and socialist axis; this side favours net neutrality, GDPR, platform intervention against abuse and hate speech, and some form of online regulation.
There are still a few places of consensus. For the most part, a good number of people still thinks that copyright proposals such as the European Copyright Directive are potentially damaging to the Internet, and there is also recognition that any attempt to dilute encryption through backdoors is also a terrible idea. Anything else is up for debate.
Concluding, I do not think that we will ever see a return to Internet political consensus, and perhaps it was never there to begin with. What is depressing is that online ideals are succumbing to offline political debates, and to some extent the US has made its own culture wars global. I can only say that I miss the more idealist Web, and despise this hate-filled environment.
ETA: My own politics are difficult to classify. I often call myself a techno-anarchist, although I went through a techno-utopian phase. My ideal society is described by Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels, or as it is known online, Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.