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Tomorrow’s Authoritarian Regime (brought to you by Google)

To what extent does a motto such as “Don’t be evil,” truly mean anything? After all, such smiling simplicity in a mission statement may sound good even as it solicits scoffs, but is that three word directive really worth even a microscopic fraction of the total financial value of the company with which that quote is associated?

In his column this week at Truthdig, titled “Google’s Spymasters Are Now Worried About Your Secrets,” Robert Scheer discusses not so much the worries of Google executives about the information they have harnessed, but rather their recognition and admission of what they have gathered and what it could all mean. Or, as Scheer, writes:

“What is truly frightening is that the techniques of the totalitarian state are the same ones pioneered by so-called democracies where commercial companies, like Google, have made a hash of the individual’s constitutionally guaranteed right to be secure in his or her private space.”

Scheer’s article focuses on the numerous ways in which the very “freedoms” granted, and seemingly enriched; by digital technologies carry with them a clear other side. This coin can easily be flipped, in other words, and the same tool that lets you know that your friends support immigration reform, that allows you to search online for anti-fracking actions to join, and makes it easy for you to buy a copy of Emma Goldman’s autobiography, can all be used to feed this information to an organization that would use this information against you. Or could easily become a thick file on you should you be deemed a dangerous subversive.

The inspiration behind Scheer’s article is a recent, rather lengthy, “Saturday Essay” in the Wall Street Journal by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen titled “The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution,” (which in turn is adapted from their forthcoming book “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”).

Beginning with the tale of a sojourn to North Korea, Schmidt and Cohen, describe the odd world of Internet access in an authoritarian state, before noting that the Internet is coming to North Korea (and other repressive countries) where the governments will have new tools at their disposal to monitor the actions of their citizens. Schmidt and Cohen move from focusing on repression to describing how resisters and revolutionaries may try to use new technologies to bring about change, but as they discuss the Egyptian Revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, they note (with help from Henry Kissinger) that the leaderless movements created in such digitally fueled uprisings may get people to the streets but have trouble with the long difficult work that characterizes politics.

It is a fascinating read, and it is understandable why Scheer would have the reaction to it that is evidenced in his Truthdig column. For hovering above the whole article by Schmidt and Cohen is a giant reeking cloud of noxious fumes spelling out the word “Google.” While the duo seems to relish repeatedly mentioning the ways in which Facebook exposes user’s data, it gives relatively little attention to the ways in which Google has gathered far more information. Thus Scheer’s reaction to the quasi-hand wringing by Schmidt and Cohen is to note that:

“The dictators, mired in more technologically primitive societies, didn’t develop the fearsome new implements of control of the National Security State. Google and other leaders in this field of massively mined and shared information did.”

And writing, by way of concluding that:

“Google has turned once private data into a commodity routinely exploited for profit. No wonder these executives are now made uncomfortable when old-fashioned dictators appropriate the snooper culture of the new technology.“

While Scheer’s concerns and critiques are spot on, his criticism does not render some of Schmidt and Cohen’s content incorrect. It is accurate of Schmidt and Cohen to recognize that as digital technology becomes ever more accessible that oppressive regimes will meet the demand by leveraging these new technologies to provide them with even more ways to watch their citizenry. Furthermore, writing in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) some measure of credit is due to Schmidt and Cohen for their willingness to admit that many companies in democratic nations will (for a tidy profit) help supply the tools these dictators need to repress their citizens (though this might just be an investment tip to Journal readers). As Schmidt and Cohen note:

“Despite the expense, everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now…Companies that sell data-mining software, surveillance cameras and other products will flaunt their work with one government to attract new business. It’s the digital analog to arms sales, and like arms sales, it will not be cheap. Autocracies rich in national resources—oil, gas, minerals—will be able to afford it. Poorer dictatorships might be unable to sustain the state of the art and find themselves reliant on ideologically sympathetic patrons.”

It’s a powerful warning and is made more so by Schmidt and Cohen also noting that the speed of technological advances makes it only a matter of time before ever more biometric information will be available for tracking by these regimes. The concerns that Schmidt and Cohen bring up have an odd glisten to them, largely as a result of the company for which both men work, but also because of the way that these warnings stand in opposition to what the men seem to believe about technology. As is captured in their writing about North Korea, of which the duo write that they:

“ended up trying to describe the Internet to North Koreans we met in terms of its values: free expression, freedom of assembly, critical thinking, meritocracy.”

Those lines are either boldly utopian or laughably naïve, in the assertion that such things are “its values,” especially when they are being presented to an authoritarian country. Terms such as “free expression” and “freedom” should always set off mental warnings when they are being used by wealthy western executives when talking about bringing such things to repressive nations; in such cases the word “free” is often just a stand in for “free market capitalism.” And what are “its values” in such “free market” societies? Well, to be overly simplistic: cat videos, shouting matches conducted in “comment sections,” pornography, and shopping, lots and lots of shopping. And this is a sense that only further emerges by revisiting the second part of the title of Schmidt and Cohen’s forthcoming book (italics mine): “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.”

This emphasis, right at the outset of their article, on how the Internet provides new opportunities for “freedom” hovers in the background whilst Schmidt and Cohen worry about repressive regimes only to replay – like a leitmotif – when they begin writing about the Arab Revolutions. The Internet’s “freedom of assembly” is treated with importance here as Schmidt and Cohen note the role that the Internet played in helping get people to the streets, while also noting that getting people to a protest is not the same as successfully building a functioning political party. Schmidt and Cohen then enact a revealing moment of self-exposure when in the midst of talking about these public uprisings they choose to turn to, of all people, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. They quote Kissinger:

“The empowered citizen,” Mr. Kissinger says, “knows the technique of getting people to the square, but they don’t know what to do with them when they are in the square. They know even less of what to do with them when they have won.”

Which is, naturally, to say absolutely nothing about the citizen’s who came to the square to democratically elect Salvadore Allende in Chile. But, perhaps in that situation the people knew how to get to the square, but Kissinger was the one who “knew what to do with them.” It is not my intention to now devote more words to the legacy of Henry Kissinger (you can read some other people’s word on this: here); however, it should be noted that if you want to talk about freedom, democracy, and repression of subversives and the statesman you call upon is Henry Kissinger you are either joking, ignorant of history, or you are subtly defining for your audience what you mean when you say “freedom.”

Towards the end of Saturday Essay Schmidt and Cohen write:

“Dictators and autocrats in the years to come will attempt to build all-encompassing surveillance states, and they will have unprecedented technologies with which to do so. But they can never succeed completely. Dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across. Citizens will have more ways to fight back than ever before—some of them anonymous, some courageously public.”

This ending seems like more of an apology than a promise of hope, particularly as Schmidt and Cohen do not use their article to turn an introspective eye towards the all-seeing-eye of Google. These “unprecedented technologies” that can be used for surveillance, how many of them will come courtesy of Google (which already knows a hell of a lot about you and everybody you know)? Is Google Glass (more on that here) not a perfect example of such a privacy violating “unprecedented” technology? It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the day when the police in a repressive regime will walk through a demonstration wearing Google Glass while being alerted (through that ever improving biometric and face recognition software) who in the crowd are the most active rabble rousers on the Internet.

Schmidt and Cohen’s claim that “dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across,” fails to clearly note that one of the main things that dissidents will be tunneling out of and across is the surveillance landscape that Google has largely helped construct. Of course, Schmidt and Cohen do not note this, they’d rather attack Facebook while hiding behind the (granted, unmentioned) security blanket of Google’s “Don’t be evil.”

Which returns us to the start: does “don’t be evil” mean anything when such a technology (like Google) is so easy to use for nefarious purposes? Does such an attempt at moral and ethical clarity mean anything when confronted with the stunted definition of “freedom” underlying Schmidt and Cohen’s technocratic and capitalistic view? It seems unfair to even ponder this as a matter of “technologies are neutral” as it is rather difficult to envision many reasons for gathering information on the scale that Google does without there being some fairly questionable and intrusive motives at work to begin with. Can a company accumulating so much information on private individuals be truly compatible with Democracy and human freedom?

In his book The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, theorist Langdon Winner (Winner’s site) sets about trying to develop a philosophical framework in which technology can be contemplated. In, what could have been a precognitive response to “don’t be evil,” Winner writes (italics in original):

“In our accustomed way of thinking technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good, evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses…If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only categories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial,” (25).

As Winner recognized it is grossly overly simplistic to attempt to hide a technology behind a smile that promises “don’t be evil,” but (forgive the repetition) what does this even mean with a technology that is gathering every little bit of information about us that it can? And the faith that Schmidt and Cohen (and many others) seem to have in the “values” of the Internet is just another example of how (to quote Winner again):

“Over many decades technological optimists have been sustained by the belief that whatever happened to be created in the sphere of material/instrumental culture would certainly be compatible with freedom, democracy, and social justice. This amounts to a conviction that all technology—whatever its size, shape or complexion—is inherently liberating,” (50).

Which is almost another way of saying: Schmidt and Cohen do not want to admit that an authoritarian dictators favorite tool is one that has a totalitarian nature already. And no Google employee (especially not a Google executive) wants to stop and consider if Google has become a more efficient and effective privacy violating machine than any secret police organization. After all, part of what has made them so effective is their wonderful PR, and they would not want to jeopardize that by asking (gasp) difficult ethical questions. Especially not when it’s so easy to just say, “our motto is don’t be evil” (not an actual quote).

Google is a good search engine, it would be dishonest to suggest to the contrary; however, this does not in anyway make up for the loss of privacy you incur whenever you use the search engine, nor does it make up for Google acting as a reader of all of your e-mails (if you use gmail) so that it can target adds to you, nor does it make up for the worrisome violations of privacy that will be unleashed as more and more people begin sporting Google Glass.

Robert Scheer’s Truthdig column is a solid and important counterpoint to Schmidt and Cohen, and a worthy warning (Scheer has a much wider readership than, say, this blog) of the ways that the technologies that Schmidt and Cohen warn of can be turned against the citizens of a democratic country.

Yet before we worry too much about the possibility of these digital tools being used by authoritarian regimes it is worth pausing and considering to what extent these tools are by their very nature authoritarian and anti-privacy. Writing in 1986, Langdon Winner wrote:

“the interesting puzzle in our times is that we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence,” (10).

And perhaps we were lulled into this sleepwalking trance by a lullaby of “don’t be evil.” We had better wake up soon.

[More on this topic — specifically about Google Glass — can be read here]

Books Cited

Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

25 comments on “Tomorrow’s Authoritarian Regime (brought to you by Google)

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    May 14, 2013

    Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

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