Barefoot into Cyberspace
An extract from Becky Hogge's new book, asking if the web can really set us free
05 Aug 11

Barefoot Into Cyberspace cover
Journalist and activist Becky Hogge’s Barefoot into Cyberspace is an inside account of hacker culture and the forces that shape it, told in the year WikiLeaks took subversive geek politics into the mainstream. It asks how free the internet will make us, and if we can ever live up to a utopian vision of technology’s (and its users’) potential. It also questions whether the outpour of information online will in fact enslave us to powerful corporate interests.

Below is an excerpt of the book, in which Hogge interviews Ethan Zuckerman, long-time fellow and researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and co-founder of international blogging community Global Voices Online.

“The reason I think internet freedom is interesting and potentially useful,” Ethan explains, “Is not because I believe some sort of Marxist-Leninist revolution is round the corner based on IT. If anything, I think a sort of an Anglo-American revolution might be long around the corner.”

For a moment, I have no idea what he is talking about. Ethan smiles at me. “I mean when we broke free of your shackles, through the long arduous public debate process of trying to figure out what a better government would be than the lousy one we had.” I realise he’s talking about the 18th century. I feel slightly embarrassed, but Ethan lets it go with a wave of his hand.

Ethan is worried that the virtual places we’re creating online to foster such a debate are not what they seem. “That forces us to think about how we create public spaces. [With the web] we think we have a free and open space to communicate in. Well maybe we don’t. Because it is owned and controlled, and because of that it’s possible that certain types of speech actually get very difficult.”

When the WELL went online, the internet was very much a network of ends, and for that reason people believed that the ‘net, and later the web, had a radical potential to refresh public discourse. No longer would debate be led by media oligopolies brokering access to a one-way pipe. The consolidation of media, epitomized by Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, could not happen over this network. Or so went the theory.

In fact today, according to a company called Arbor Networks who have access to a significant majority of the world’s internet traffic, about 60% of all web traffic terminates at about 150 companies, and about 30% of all web traffic terminates at about 30 companies. 6% of web traffic is the result of just one company: Google. Consolidation in cyberspace has already happened, and in a remarkably shorter time frame than the consolidation of print and broadcast media. Just like our local high street, a once-thriving marketplace of independent ventures is being taken over by familiar and deodorised corporate giants – Facebook, Yahoo!, Amazon, YouTube. How has this happened?

“The rhetoric of the internet early on was this massively decentralised network where every point routes to every point,” Ethan explains. “It doesn’t matter if you cut the wires, it will re-route
around it and everything is sort of an independent end node, right? Technically things are fairly independent as end nodes. You can do ludicrous things with just a PC attached to this network. And the whole rise of peer-to-peer [filesharing] demonstrates how ludicrous you can be just doing peers.

“The first thing to note is that it’s nowhere near as resilient as we promised ourselves it was. You know, when a cable goes down in west Africa it has very real, very significant consequences. But what turns out to be most interesting, at least for me, is that we thought all the services would be at the edge of the networks. Which is to say lots of people would have their own web servers under their control, their own mail servers under their control. And what’s been happening gradually over about 15 years is everyone has said, ‘that’s really a pain in the ass and I really don’t want to do that.'”

Much like the sixties communards who gave up farming the land after one season showed them how hard it was, communicatory self-sufficiency turned out to be a bit of a drag. “I think it changed first because of spam,” Ethan says. “Basically, if you run your own mail server these days the amount of time you have to spend training your spam filter is just insane. And so I would say 80% of the sort of hardcore geeks I know just moved over to Gmail, and have just sort of said, ‘It’s fine. You know? Yes, now Google controls my email. If I really am worried about it I can always encrypt on top of it, but the pain I’m going through to maintain my own mail server just isn’t worth it anymore’.” Ethan and I both use Gmail.

“After that,” Ethan continues, “we started to see consolidation of web hosting. And similarly that’s more of a cost issue. Web traffic is really spikey. And what you really want to do is to be able to turn up the bandwidth to your server. Or potentially put another server in if you’re having a good day and suddenly everyone’s paying attention to you. That’s really hard to do if you’re off on your own running your own box. So a lot of people have moved to using hosted web services. Those web services tend to converge and so you end up with companies like Rackspace which now control large percentages of the independent web.

“Where this has really gotten crazy is in social media. Social media is almost by definition heavily centralised.” Ethan says the reason for this is “it’s a namespace problem”, which is a short and rather technical way of saying that we need directories like Facebook and Twitter to make it easy for us to find our friends online among the sea of people who share their names. Just as the Screen Actors Guild and Equity stipulate that no two of their members may have the same stage name to avoid confusion, Facebook and Twitter make sure no two of their users have the same handle or identifying code, meaning you can always find the exact Ethan Zuckerman or Becky Hogge you’re looking for.

What all this means is that although the rhetoric behind the ‘net was one of radical decentralisation, disintermediation and the chance at a truly plural public sphere, the reality of it pens us into what are essentially a handful of corporate pseudo-public spaces.

“It’s terrifying,” says Ethan. “And the reason it’s terrifying is that much of the thinking that we’ve done about the internet is thinking about open standards, autonomous agents, all able to make our own decisions. But if you are using a social media platform or a blogging platform to publish your thoughts, you are within one of these large spaces. At a certain point, you are dependent on their rules of the road for your continued existence.”

Ethan found himself thinking about this problem for the first time when friends of his in Zimbabwe, a human rights organisation called Kubatana, were told by their hosting provider Bluehost, one of the largest in the US, that they had to go. When Kubatana asked Bluehost why, the response was simple but shocking: “because you’re Zimbabwean.”

What had happened was this. The US Department of Trade maintains a list of sanctioned individuals in Zimbabwe with whom US companies are prevented from doing business, and the penalties for violating those sanctions had been slowly ratcheting up over the last few years. At some point Bluehost’s lawyers had apparently decided that, legal niceties aside, it probably wasn’t worth their while serving any Zimbabweans. The edict had gone out “Get rid of the Zimbabweans. They’re not worth it.”

“So what happened,” Ethan recounts, “was well after Kubatana had signed up to their account, Bluehost changed their terms of service.” Most ‘net companies reserve the right to change their terms of service at any time, often without notifying the users who unwittingly agree to abide by them. “Their new terms of service state, ‘I am not a Zimbabwean’ or Syrian or Cuban or any number of other countries. And so my friends were being kicked out for being Zimbabwean. Now, if you’re a human rights activist in Zimbabwe, this is a pretty easy fight as far as they go. So they decided to start a fight. They got the US Embassy in Harare to call the Treasury Department and have the Treasury Department call this company and say, ‘You idiots, fix this’. And so three weeks later after much nasty email exchanges there was an apology from the CEO inviting them back.” At which point, according to Ethan, they said what they had intended to say all along, namely, “Go fuck yourself.” They now host with Verio.

The Open Net Initiative published a report in 2010 detailing the practices of five major social networking and blogging platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Blogger – and the effects these practices were having on free speech. Based on these investigations, the report speculated that Facebook was using a crude, numbers-based system for policing its content, automatically deactivating accounts and group pages if a threshold of complaints was met. It also identified specific Facebook groups who were gaming this system, for example a group of Arab Muslims whose stated aim was to get the account of every atheist Arab deleted by Facebook’s automated system. Although YouTube was found to offer better avenues of redress to users who felt their content had been removed unfairly, ONI discovered anecdotal evidence to show that it too set the threshold of permitted speech far higher than one might expect of, say, serious broadcasting.
YouTube had deleted a number of human rights videos – mostly from the Arab world – on the basis of the violence and illegal activity they depicted, rather than the context in which those depictions were being communicated. Flickr too, had come up against human rights activists – this time in Romania – angry at content removed from their streams.

The ONI are not anti-capitalists. They make clear in the introduction to their report that they understand that corporations who provide services like YouTube and Facebook are working under competing pressures: the pressure to create a viable business, to keep their services available in countries with restrictive laws, and the pressure to avoid politically-motivated cyber-attacks on their infrastructure from groups keen to suppress ideas through force. “Negotiating this terrain often means compromising,” they write, “sometimes at the expense of users”.
Nonetheless, the ONI also rightly identify the current state of affairs as deeply precarious. Because the platforms they investigated are beginning to dominate online communications, the efforts these platform operators make to police their own content will have a substantial and growing impact on free expression and public discourse:

As users flock toward popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, they are effectively stepping away from public streets and parks and into the spaces similar in some ways to
shopping malls – spaces that are privately owned and often subject to stringent rules and lacking in freedoms.

As Ethan puts it, “it’s sort of like saying, ‘let’s go have a good public argument about this. And we’ll do it at Terminal 5 at Heathrow’. If what’s interesting about internet freedom is this idea of creating digital public spaces where we can debate whatever issues are relevant. And if what’s exciting about internet freedom is that countries that don’t have conventional public spaces could now have digital public spaces, then we have to recognise, those aren’t public spaces. Those are private spaces; those are corporate-controlled spaces.”

In No Logo, Naomi Klein details exactly what’s wrong with the real-world emergence of the pseudo-public space in corporate America:

“The conflation of shopping and entertainment found at the superstores and theme-park malls has created a vast grey area of pseudo-public private space. Politicians, police, social workers and even religious leaders all recognize that malls have become the modern town square. But unlike the old town squares, which were and still are sites for community discussion, protests and political rallies, the only type of speech that is welcome here is marketing and other consumer patter. Peaceful protestors are routinely thrown out by mall security guards for interfering with shopping, and even picket lines are illegal inside these enclosures.”

It’s ironic that a technology that gave citizens the ability to take back public space and public discourse from corporate control could have turned so quickly into the anti-globalisation movement’s worst nightmare – a virtual corporate beast a hundred times more efficient than anything in the real world at exploiting the citizen-consumer’s own expression and desire in order to sell advertising. Why did things pan out so differently from the way early geeks expected them to?

“This was such an anti-corporate space when a lot of people were starting to play with it for the first time,” says Ethan. “If your first internet experience was the WELL, you might have asked, ‘Who the hell’s going to make money off a bunch of Grateful Dead fans?’ My first experience was Usenet. And the notion that someone was somehow going to make money off that cesspool seemed utterly ludicrous. Back then, I’d always assumed that when we were promising investors that we’d do good things with their money that, you know, we were probably going to lose money hand over fist. So it’s never made any sense to me.”

Ethan is thinking back to his days, before the big sale to Lycos. “In the nineties, we were these scrappy little youngsters in a house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with no affiliations to big companies. And the companies that were big, and that we admired, had silly names like Yahoo! and their founders rode around on skateboards. So it was hard to think of this as the big corporate consolidation. It looked like the internet was this space where anyone could do anything with very few resources and a very low start-up cost. And in fact that does seem to continue to sort of be true. You know, Twitter was able to become Twitter pretty damn fast. So I think maybe it is still a pretty open space. In that, if you can create a platform and convince
people that they want to be on it you are free to do that. But I think it is a space that naturally consolidates. And I think it consolidates because of brand.”

So much for No Logo. Ethan explains, “When geography no longer matters, brand matters a lot more. I remember people saying in 1998, ‘I want to be the number one retailer in the online pet and pet food space.’ It turns out that there is no online pet and pet foods space. There’s an online retail space, Amazon is number one at it. Being number two at it isn’t very helpful. But I think that was hard to call. And I think it was hard to call, because the myth of the garage entrepreneur doesn’t seem like it is about centralisation.”

Though we started with water, Ethan and I have moved on to beer, and I’m feeling a little bold. What, I ask him, does this tell us about us? After all, evil forces are not at play here. The internet actually resisted regulatory interference from the old order in quite an amazing way, at least in its early years. Were we always unlikely to match up to the net’s potential?
Ethan takes a sip of his drink and thinks. “We’re sitting near the heart of a city of, how many million people?”

I tell him ten, although I’m none too sure.

“That’s a lot of people…” he says.

“That is a lot of people,” I reply.

“And they’ve decided to get together in a fairly close environment. The real estate here, the permission to use this piece of land we’re sitting on, it’s a whole lot more expensive than in some other parts of this country. Human beings like being together. And we have this natural tendency to get together. In fact we’re watching this happen across the world right now. We’re urbanising and we’re urbanising very quickly because when people get together there’s more opportunity, there’s more excitement. You know there’s just more, the closer you get together. I think centralisation is in the human spirit. And I think what’s interesting is this. You know the reason why London doesn’t have one giant Sainsbury’s? It’s geography. We couldn’t all get to it. And if we could, we couldn’t all get through it, right? You know, we’d all end up fighting over the iceberg lettuce and you’d never get to the rocket. And there’d be a big, big problem. The internet lets us all go to  Sainsbury’s at the same time, and we can all get our lettuce at the same time. And at a certain point the question then becomes, well why not just have one Sainsbury’s?”

Like Frontline’s founder, Vaughan Smith, neither Ethan nor I live in a city. He lives in rural Massachusetts with his wife and son, a three-hour drive out of Boston. I live in an area of Cambridgeshire that produces a significant proportion of the vegetables Sainsbury’s stocks on its shelves. But we’re the exception, not the rule. In global terms, we’re ludicrously wealthy – in the top 1%. We’re running off to rural areas because we believe that when we get there, we’ll be free. Perhaps for the same reason, we both fell prey to the excitement of decentralisation promised by the ‘net.

“We’re Utopians,” Ethan says.

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