Net Effect

On the irresponsibility of Internet intellectuals

For those of you who are still following my Haystack chronicles, here is a recent announcement from Haystack’s website: We have halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran pending a security review. If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it. I hope the Haystack founders would be kind enough ...

For those of you who are still following my Haystack chronicles, here is a recent announcement from Haystack’s website:

We have halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran pending a security review. If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it.

I hope the Haystack founders would be kind enough to expand on this.

The Haystack fiasco has revealed so many things about the state of play in the "Internet freedom" world that it is enough to produce a collection of essays. Beyond the actual technological details — which I am sure Jake Appelbaum, Danny O’Brien, and plenty of other technologists will discuss in due time — several other interesting threads have emerged.

First, why have the media failed to properly cover Haystack as they should have? Jillian York and Nancy Scola have already weighed in on this — and I hope the media critics will be quick to opine as well.

Second, why has the U.S. government been so eager to embrace technologies like Haystack without due diligence? I’ve already discussed some possible reasons in my earlier blog post and am working on a more extensive essay on the subject, to appear later in the week.

These are both good questions. Let me add a third one. Why were so many "Internet intellectuals" silent during the early stages of the Haystack debate? I don’t want to take on a self-righteous pose and highlight my own role in the Haystack proceedings, but I think they do reveal the timidity of the current debate in the field. (Let me warn you: this post will be hard to finish without name calling but I’ll try my best).

Last week I blogged about the "20th century roots of the 21st century statecraft," where I may have inadvertently implied some improper relationship between Harvard’s Berkman Center and the U.S. State Department. I did not mean to suggest that State’s funding compromises Berkman’s academic integrity — I apologize if my blog post created that impression. What I meant to suggest is that the proximity to power of any kind compromises many of Berkman’s researchers as public intellectuals — and this may reflect badly on Berkman as a whole.

The tough and probably inevitable dilemma is between helping the government get it right and helping the public get it right, by being in a strong position to criticize the government.

Obviously, this is not a new argument — people are still arguing over Chomsky’s famous essay of 1967 — but I think it’s an argument that is extremely important today, when the U.S. government is (in my opinion) embarking on a quixotic mission to promote "Internet freedom" without — as the Haystack fiasco has so clearly revealed — fully understanding the highly technical nature of the field or the risks associated with it.

This, of course, launches another chapter in the long-running debate of a) how should the government profit from external expertise?; and b) how should public intellectuals — and especially those with a good understanding of the technologies involved — build, disclose and scrutinize their own relationships to the government’s efforts in this space?

Now, there are several extremely important issues to unpack here. One is the macro-level and has to deal with the critique of "Internet freedom" policy as such. Is it a useful orientation/foundation for the U.S. foreign policy as a whole? Is there something that we know about the Internet that should make us suspicious of the ideology behind the "Internet freedom" doctrine, even if that ideology seems to be empty? Is it likely to rid us of existing problems or only aggravate them? What should the procedures be for designing effective policies based on such a doctrine? Are such procedures or policies even possible given the rhetorical limitations of the doctrine?

Of course, it’s been less than a year since Clinton’s "Internet freedom" speech but I haven’t seen much cogent meta-criticism. There were a few good short pieces  written by very smart folks — it’s just that few would consider them to be "public intellectuals with an expertise in matters of technology or the Internet".

The second issue is the micro-level. Imagine that we can go beyond the Internet freedom doctrine for a second and engage with specific issues that inevitably pop up regardless of the doctrine. The Haystack fiasco is probably the best example here. The structural constraints created by the Internet freedom crusade surely created enabling conditions and added Haystack and its founder some legitimacy and media capital. All of this is true and chimes very well with many of the arguments I myself have been making for quite some time.

And still, it seemed pretty obvious from the very beginning that Haystack’s founders may have violated some of the basic norms of the anti-censorship community and put people at risk. The burden of proof was clearly on them. What I along with a number of other folks have been doing in the past two weeks has been pushing them to produce the evidence that there are no risks to their testers — or halt those tests if they can’t convince us.

The need for this public campaign became obvious before anyone saw a line of their code. That "Internet intellectuals" — people who write books, give TED talks, talk to the media, and explain the Internet to the public — failed to point that out, well, I find that inexplicable. (Once again, I know that it makes me sound extremely self-righteous, but I feel like I’d better make this point anyway.)

I understand that some academics may feel the need to examine Haystack’s code before making any definitive conclusions — but I’d be hard-pressed to imagine why even academics wouldn’t point out to some obvious discrepancies between Haystack’s claims, their practices, and the kind of risks both of those posed to the Iranians. In fact, academics were in the best position to speak up and opine on all of this; had such criticism come from academics (rather than from mere bloggers like myself), it would have seemed much more credible.

I’m not talking about Clay Shirky or Nicholas Carr here; their engagement with the international-censorship dimension of the Internet has been quite shallow in the case of Shirky ("Belarusians use blogs to pull off ice-cream eating flashmobs! Kenyans use mobile phones to track violence!") and virtually non-existent in the case of Carr. This is also a big problem — but this is not a problem that bothers me the most in relation to Haystack.

I’m more concerned with those in the know. The folks at Harvard, who have or have had some affiliation with the Berkman Center — Ethan Zuckerman, John Palfrey, Jonathan Zittrain — these guys have an established track-record of weighing in on international dimensions of the Internet, they have an unmatchable understanding of the freedom of expression world, and they actually know A LOT a
bout circumvention

Why none of them chose to join the Haystack debate at a point when it really mattered — before Haystack was turned off — is a complete mystery to me. I’ve toyed with the idea of reaching out to all them and asking them privately — but  I think it would be for everyone’s benefit to ask this question in public.

Just to emphasize: I am only writing this post to stimulate a debate. I have been mulling over the notion of "Internet intellectuals" for a while now — and I’m working on a long essay on the subject — but the Haystack debacle has helped to crystallized many of the points I want to make and convinced me that something is clearly broken in our field.

I know that drawing the exact boundaries between academics/experts/government grantees/public intellectuals is never going to be easy, but I suggest that we at least start asking all these uncomfortable questions, so that hopefully we can start seeing where those boundaries lie.

And just so that it doesn’t look that I am trying to claim the limelight for myself: a lot of people — Jake Appelbaum, Danny O’Brien, Katrin Verclas, Jillian York and many others — have been involved in helping to shed more light on Haystack. My problem is mostly with the people who WERE NOT involved.

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