"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Day We Fight Back (should be every single day)

So, what are you doing today? Hopefully you are going to take a moment to call or e-mail congress (or the appropriate equivalent) and demand that action be taken to reign in the metastasizing surveillance apparatus. In particular, you can demand that legislators prevent the passage of the FISA Improvements Act, encourage them to vote for the USA Freedom Act, and exhort them to push for real change instead of the largely superficial alterations recently proposed by President Obama.

True, this is something that you can do any day, but February 11, 2014 has been chosen as a day of mass action in memory of Aaron Swartz’s death – and for the day to be successful those in the chambers of power need to hear from you (and your friends).

This day of action is being called for by an impressive array of groups, of varying ideological stances, banding together to oppose mass surveillance. Building off the successful online mobilizations against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA and PIPA) this call aims to harness online networks of concerned people to defend the freedom and privacy of those very online networks and that offline realm sometimes referred to as “the world.” If you have the time (or can make the time [it does not take long]) it is important to make a call or send off an e-mail, but it is also important to bear in mind that even if today has been designated “The Day” this is a “fight back” that is going to take a long time. The challenge posed by the mass surveillance practiced by the NSA (and its corporate counterpart) is extremely different from SOPA. And thus when we consider the way to oppose mass surveillance we need to wrestle with much more difficult issues than those posed by SOPA.

A quick recap: The SOPA/PIPA bill described its aims as being “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” Though ostensibly about protecting copyright and fighting online piracy the bill was recognized by many as being dangerously vague and far-reaching such that if passed it could represent an attack on the freedom of speech that many see as an essential aspect of the Internet. Groups large and small banded together to oppose the passage of SOPA with an organized online “blackout” taking place which brought in the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Wikipedia (and many more) to stand together in opposition. Beyond the prominent companies and organizations opposing SOPA, the bill also had prominent opponents within government, with the White House even offering a (albeit carefully worded) rebuke of SOPA. Thus, thanks largely to the outpouring of opposition, SOPA was shelved and though there’s always a risk it will come off the shelf, it seems that it has been defeated.

The defeat of SOPA should be celebrated, it was an important victory, and it is tempting to look to that success as a source for inspiration in the battle against the NSA’s overreach. That being said, it is essential to recognize the vast difference between fighting SOPA and fighting surveillance. Firstly, stopping SOPA involved preventing a bill from becoming law, it was preventative activism – whereas opposing surveillance is attempting to block, repeal, or seriously reform laws/ruling/systems in place already (and backed up by a huge and well funded apparatus). Secondly, the fight against SOPA was supported by many of the “usual” civil liberties organizations (such as the ACLU and EFF) but it also pulled in supporters with a great deal of influence (financial and otherwise) like Google, whereas the struggle against surveillance seems almost entirely made up of the “usual” groups (not that there’s anything wrong with these groups, but sadly their influence is – shall we say – less impactful than Google [in other words they have less money to bribe, I mean, support politicians]). Thirdly, advocates of SOPA could not do very much to link the bill to the cheap argument ender known as “invoke national security” while much of the debate about surveillance gets quickly scuttled thanks to the leitmotif that massive surveillance equals security. Fourthly, opposition to SOPA was based largely around a desire to not have to change the way that people were interacting with digital media and technologies, whereas in the case of surveillance it seems as if people are opposing surveillance so that they can return to their usage of digital media and technology without worrying about whether or not they are being spied upon. Opposing SOPA was about preserving a certain status quo, fighting surveillance is about fighting the status quo. Alas, the former tends to be easier.

All of which should make at least one thing quite clear: halting the growth of the surveillance state is not something that consists of a “day” of fighting back, not even a “week” of fighting back. This is not to say that you should not call or e-mail an elected official today to demand action (if you haven’t done it yet, why not do it right now? [I’ll wait {oh good, you’re back}]), but it is a reminder that – as with pretty much all activism – what you do on the day, and in the days, after the “big” event is every bit as important, if not more important, than what you did on the “big” day. Taking a long term perspective in dealing with this issue is particularly important when considering the many ways in which this issue is extremely different from SOPA – this is not going to be resolved simply by halting the FISA Improvements Act or by winning some bland promised “reforms” or being assured of the eventual passing of the USA Freedom Act (which may eventually be passed after being so stuffed with amendments as to make its title a bait and switch worthy of being ranked beside the USA Patriot act).

In the last few years we have learned a fair amount not just about the way that power works but also about the way that protest can be effective. While we should not diminish the victory in 2011 of the anti-SOPA protests the example that might be more fruitful to consider is that of Occupy Wall Street. It is not the intention here to start a lengthy conversation about the “successes” and “failures” of OWS; however, the movement did succeed in putting the topic of economic inequality (amongst other topics) in the public consciousness and keeping it there. What would it mean to push the topic of privacy and surveillance to similar promience? Certainly there are manifold issues that one could point to regarding OWS, but the aspects of OWS that are useful for considering organizing against surveillance are fourfold: creativity, systematic critique, self awareness, and mutual aid. These four aspects present a useful set of ways for thinking through how the fight against surveillance can really be effective.

Creativity – While OWS is likely best remembered for the actual encampments it needs to also be remembered that OWS spawned a wide array of creative actions from puppets, to costumed marches, to Internet outreach, to people telling their personal stories, to education, to producing newspapers and manifestos, and much else. The point is that it is not enough to call legislators on one day, what’s needed is a creative response that takes on many forms. Including forms that bring people out in the streets. It is true that the Day We Fight Back website encourages people to be creative – but insofar as it casts the “fight back” as being linked to just one day it fails to fully pull people into a broad creative movement where there are hundreds of ways for people to get involved. Opposing surveillance is going to be a long struggle, and it’s going to require creativity to keep people engaged.

Systematic Critique – Putting all of the blame at the feet of the NSA is problematic. While the name OWS might make it seem to some that the movement was focused solely upon financial malfeasance it should be clear to anybody who has even half honestly assessed the movement to see that OWS focused on a range of issues: from militarization to neo-liberalism to environmental degradation to the oppression of various communities to educational cuts to surveillance to debt to…and so forth. The NSA may be the clear bogeyman in the surveillance conversation but this critique of surveillance needs to be broadened to take into account the other trends that it signals (the militarization of police forces for example), and it needs to also take into account that the surveillance plague has infected much of government. Yet, it is also important as we consider surveillance to take into account the level of corporate surveillance that we are subjected to. Google and its powerful tech cohorts, those valiant corporate do-gooders against SOPA, are notably absent from The Day We Fight Back. Though some of these groups have grumbled angrily in the direction of the government, their level of real concern seems primarily focused on the fear of losing money. If we want to fight for our right to privacy, for real ownership of our information, we will not only need to challenge the NSA we will also need to challenge the corporate regimes that perhaps know even more about us than the NSA. After all, just as the NSA has proved itself canny at making use of digital media platforms – we need to consider that the problem may not simply be the NSA, it’s the platforms the NSA has been able to make use of as well. Furthermore, by increasing the pressure on the platforms that act as collaborators (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc…) it not only puts a demand on those companies it also forces those companies to increase the pressure on the government themselves. Many tech companies have already expressed frustration about the NSA programs, but we need to make them turn this frustration into a true fear that unless they join the fight (as they did against SOPA) their profits are going to disappear.  The NSA might not worry when people suggest that a boycott might be an effective strategy…but corporations tremble.

Self-Awareness – We are citizens in a technological society. As such we live in a manner that forces us to make a host of compromises on any given day when it comes to issues of privacy and surveillance. The truth of the matter (without meaning to be hyperbolic) is that if one wants to totally avoid technologically enabled surveillance one needs to pretty much drop out of society; this is not a realistic option, nor is it one being suggested here. Instead we need to be aware of the ways in which the choices we make and the actions we take empower surveillance systems and harm our own privacy. Smart phones – for example – are highly sophisticated tracking devices filled with apps that can prove a bit leaky (even games like Angry Birds); e-mail that goes through big companies like Google and Yahoo! is being sifted through by complex algorithms (as well as the NSA) that are building massive dossiers on you; numerous platforms that seem innocuous at first glance (YouTube) are actually owned by large companies so that what you do on one site feeds into the over all big data trove of information. This does not mean that one must give up all of the previously mentioned things; however, we need to use them without any illusions about what they are and what they can do. Furthermore, it should serve as a reminder that in the cases where options are available (there are search engines other than Yahoo and Google [you could treat your cell phone as if it was a land line]) it is worth investigating those alternatives. We are bound up in the systems that we want to break free of, but if we want to break free we need to be able to clearly see the knots that are binding us.

Mutual aid – When people remember OWS it seems that they often forget the impressive variety of mutual aid structures developed in the occupations: kitchens, medical care, libraries, clothing distribution, etc… While certain types of mutual aid are easier to see as abundantly necessary when a physical community is being established, mutual aid is nevertheless a principle that is essential in combating surveillance. It is true that this might not take the form of sharing meals, but it should certainly take the form of sharing information and taking an active role in educating other people as to why surveillance is an issue that they need to think about. Furthermore, a commitment to mutual aid is what will allow a cause to go beyond a call to action on a given day and allow it to develop into a movement that keeps up the pressure even as it seeks to get more people involved. One of the main actions proposed for The Day We Fight Back is to contact elected officials, but much of the mess we are in is a result of those elected officials (and the unelected officials of the tech world), it is a mistake to invest faith in these officials to change anything. Instead, we need to invest that faith in each other.

The fight against rampant surveillance did not start today and it will not end today. Though chastened by the public exposure and slapped on the wrist by the President’s acknowledgment that some “reform” is needed, the NSA is not about to stop watching – nor for that matter are the host of corporations that have accumulated vast amounts of wealth by accumulating huge amounts of information. With newer ever more privacy pilfering devices on the horizon – Google Glass, “smart home” technologies – the tools for surveillance are growing ever more sophisticated. We need to build an equally powerful movement to counter them, one that is creative, sees the problem systematically, is self aware, and in which the participants help each other to grow the movement. Mass days of action are an important tactic, so call or write your elected officials today, but then call or write a prominent tech executive tomorrow, and tell your friends why they need to care about surveillance the next day, and try leaving your phone at home the day after, and on Saturday look into alternative programs and platforms that better protect your privacy, on Sunday tell everybody what you found, and keep at it, until fighting surveillance becomes part of your life every single day.

Surveillance is a problem every day. So we must fight back every day.

The link (again):

Related Content

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

The Panoptic Con

The Triumph of Technique

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

Is Privacy Really a Priority?

Protecting Your Privacy – A Resource Guide

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

3 comments on “The Day We Fight Back (should be every single day)

  1. Pingback: And the Bandwidth Plays On…Reconfiguring the Internet on the Titanic | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. silencejay
    March 9, 2014

    The people should fight back everyday but explain me to how if there no voices for the middle class !

  3. Pingback: The Less Things Change… | LibrarianShipwreck

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