The dust from whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations has still not settled, and his whistle looks set to carry on blowing into this new year. Enough time has elapsed since the initial furore to allow us to reflect on its broader implications. One interesting consequence of the Snowden story is the way it has changed the debate about Silicon Valley and the ‘internet freedom’ lobby. In the past, some commentators have (rightly or wrongly) accused this lobby of cosying up to Silicon Valley companies and preaching a naive kind of cyberutopianism.
The classic proponent of this view is the astute (though unecessarily confrontational) journalist Evgeny Morozov, but variations on his theme can be found in the work of BBC documentarian-in-residence Adam Curtis (whose series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ wove together an intellectual narrative from 60’s era hippies, through Ayn Randian libertarianism to modern Silicon Valley ideology). According to these storytellers, big technology companies and non-profit groups have made faustian bargains based on their perceived mutual interest in keeping the web ‘free from government interference’. In fact, they say, this pact only served to increase the power of both the state and the tech industry, at the expense of democracy.
Whilst I agree (as Snowden has made clear) that modern technology has facilitated a something of a digital land grab, the so-called ‘internet freedom lobby’ are not to blame. One thing that was irksome about these critiques was the lack of distinction between parts of this ‘lobby’. Who exactly are they talking about?
Sure, there are a few powerful ideological libertarians and profiteering social media pundits in the Valley, but there has long been a political movement arguing for digital rights which has had very little to do with that ilk. Morozov’s critique always jarred with me whenever I came across one of the many the principled, privacy-conscious technophiles who could hardly have been accused of Randian individualism or cosying up to powerful elites.
If there is any truth in the claim, it is this; on occasion, the interests of internet users have coincided with the interests of technology companies. For instance, when a web platform is forced to police behaviour on behalf of the Hollywood lobby, both the platform and its users lose. More broadly, much of the free/libre/open source world is funded directly or indirectly from the profits of tech companies.
But the Snowden revelations have driven a rhetorical wedge further between those interests. Before Snowden, people like Morozov could paint digital rights activists as naive cheerleaders of tech companies – and in some cases they may have been right. But they ignored the many voices in those movements who stood both for emancipatory power of the web as a communications medium, and against its dangers as a surveillance platform. After Snowden, the privacy wing of the digital rights community has taken centre stage and can no longer be ignored.
At a dialectical level, Silicon Valley sceptics like Morozov should be pleased. If any of his targets in the digital rights debate have indeed been guilty of naivety about the dangers of digital surveillance, the Snowden revelations have shown them the cold light of day and proved Morozov right. But in another sense, Snowden proved him wrong. Snowden is a long-term supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose founders and supporters Morozov has previously mocked. Snowden’s revelations, and their reception by digital rights advocates, shows that they were never soft on digital surveillance, by state or industry.
Of course, one might say Snowden’s revelations were the evidence that Morozov needed to finally silence any remaining Silicon Valley cheerleaders. As he said in a recent Columbia Journalism Review interview: “I’m destroying the internet-centric world that has produced me. If I’m truly successful, I should become irrelevant.”