Last Sunday night Citizenfour, the Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden, won the Oscar for best documentary. This is a great development for those of us who believe that the Snowden revelations constitute one of the most important events of our time, and hopefully it will prompt a wider examination of the role of state surveillance in the modern world.
I wanted to write a few lines looking at the documentary from the perspective of Internet Regulation in general. This is more relevant than it may seem at first glance, as in my opinion Snowden has shown us an Internet that is deeply more controlled than we previously thought. This has deep implications for what we expect of our governments, but it also concerns those who analyse how governments, private corporations, and citizens interact online.
One of the most important aspects of the film for me was to understand Snowden’s motivations a bit better. During that crazy period of time in June 2013 when the world was learning about the true scope of the NSA’s and GCHQ’s surveillance programmes, I purposefully tried to ignore Snowden’s motives, as they seemed like a distraction from the content of the reports, but over the years I have started wonderingabout this aspect of the story. What makes a person with a decent life give everything up by becoming a whistle-blower? Was it a miscalculation or just callous disregard for his family and partner? Citizenfour does a very good job of trying to dissect some of the motives, and I was surprised to find that what seems to drive Snowden is a legitimate ideological stance against government surveillance.
Moreover, Snowden’s ideas fall roughly under the cyber-libertarian camp. One of the most telling parts of the movie is this explanation by Snowden of what he thinks of the Internet:
“I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched. And there has never been anything in the history of man like it. I mean you could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion, where you know they were sort of granted the same respect for their ideas and conversation, with experts in the field from another part of the world on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time. And it was free and unrestrained. And we’ve seen the chilling of that, the cooling of that and the changing of that model towards something which people self police their own views. And they literally make their own jokes on ending up on the list if they donate to a political cause or if they say something in a discussion. And it has become an expectation that we’re being watched.”
This is an incredibly idealized version of the early Internet, and perhaps even a bit naive. It describes an egalitarian liberal fantasy that never really existed where children had the same amount of clout than an expert. True, the early Web was a more free space than what we have now, but I do not buy this mythical in illo tempore where everybody had the same respect. Particularly, the false equivalence of the opinions of a child with those of an expert in the field is rather risible, next time I’m sick I’ll ask the first child I see on the street.
However, what is important is that Snowden very much believes in the ideal free and open Internet, and is not happy with the way in which things are going. Who is to blame? The government of course, as any cyber-libertarian will tell you. Snowden comments during the film:
“So for me it all comes down to State Power against the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power. And I’m sitting there everyday, getting paid to design methods to amplify that State Power. And I’m realizing that if, you know, the policy switches, that there are the only things that restrains these states, were changed, there, you couldn’t meaningfully oppose these. I mean, you have to be the most incredibly sophisticated data collector in existence. I’m not sure there’s anybody, no matter how gifted you are, who could oppose all of the offices and all the bright people even all the mediocre people out there with all of their tools and all of their capabilities.”
It then becomes a moral imperative of those who have the technical tools available to them to try to oppose such government control, as it is a direct affront against freedom and democracy. Normal people cannot do it, so it is up to the few system administrators who have exceptional access to what is really going on to lift the lid and allow everyone to see what is taking place.
Cyber-libertarianism may have fallen out of fashion with us cynical academics, but it is still very much alive and well in forums all over the Internet, where there are generations of Cyberspace natives that are tremendously suspicious of any regulatory efforts. Snowden is clearly one of those people, another telling instance in the documentary was that during the days in the Hong Kong hotel he was reading Homeland by Cory Doctorow. This is a book about the protagonist is given files detailing abuses by the department of Homeland Security, and he has to make a decision about whether to do what’s right.
Snowden’s motives and state of mind are very important in Citizenfour, because there is a lot of talk towards the end of the existence of another whistle-blower. One of the themes of the documentary is that it is up to the individual to stand up against abusive government surveillance. This is a level of control that can have nefarious effects on democratic values, and freedom can only survive through the brave actions of people like Snowden.
I, for one, am glad that Snowden had the courage of releasing the files, regardless of his reasons for doing it. We need to know that the distributed ideal of the Internet has been compromised in the name of national security. We need transparency in the way that security services collect data indiscriminately. In short, we need more people like Snowden.