(mis)adventures in software development...

27 December 2013

Hacking Government: An Ineffective Digital Militia

Category Technology

Guns, geeks and secret trade treaties: Why gun owners are so much better at standing up to politicians trying to take away their freedoms than geeks.

Digitally Pissing in the Wind (Part 3)

I do think the pace of change in the world is increasing. Part of what I would think about is, I think that we haven’t adapted mechanisms to deal with some of our old institutions like the law and so on aren’t keeping up with the rate of change that we’ve caused through technology. You know, if you look different kinds of laws we make, and things like that, they’re very old. …The other thing in my mind is we also haven’t maybe built mechanisms to allow experimentation. There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do ’cause they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation. And that makes sense, we don’t want our world to change too fast. But maybe we should set aside some small part of the world, you know, like going to Burning Man, for example. Which I’m sure many of you have been to. Yeah, a few Burners out there. That’s an environment where people try out different things, but not everybody has to go. And I think that’s a great thing, too. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world. And people who like those kinds of things can go there and experience that. And we don’t have mechanisms for that. So those are the kind of things I would think about.”

—Larry Page, Google I/O 2013 keynote

The lack of serious gun control in the US is a testament to how effective the NRA and gun lobbyists are at stopping the government from encroaching on their gun rights. By contrast, things like a fundamentally broken patent system and legislation like the DMCA are a testament to how useless geeks are at stopping the government from encroaching on their digital rights.

It’s strange to observe the gun control debate occurring in the US. Especially living half a world away, in a country that has had very strict gun control laws for many years, an no more mass shootings as a result. It’s strange hear the invective used by the gun lobby about gun control laws being akin to government tyranny, when here in Australia things don’t seem any more tyrannical than any other alleged democracy. It’s easy to make fun of Americans and their love of guns (though not if there are any in the room, because they’d probably be armed), and it’s easy to mock the NRA and their ridiculously overwrought and hyperbolic stance on gun control. Especially if one’s main source of overseas news is The Daily Show.

Yet, even though the issue of gun control is not one that I have much personal interest in, I have been thinking a bit about the NRA because of two current issues in Australian politics that have no (obvious) connection with guns — the newly elected Coalition government’s vastly inferior Fibre To The Node plan for the National Broadband Network, and The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Both are just two recent examples of something that’s been happening over and over again for long time now, all over the world — politicians doing really stupid things and making really bad decisions when it comes to matters of technology, while those most affected do little to effectively fight back. It’s politicians and other Merchants of Bullshit in power screwing the geeks — and winning. Of course, with the way technology is now a part of everyday life for most people, this means it’s not just the geeks getting screwed — it’s pretty much everyone that uses the internet in any way, shape or form. In the case of the TPP, the effects of the technologically toxic intellectual property provisions will affect just about everyone. As Julian Assange eloquently put it:

“If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.”

Modern democracy has wandered far from any ideals of government by the people and for the people. The TPP is a great example of government by the rich elite for multinational corporations — as large corporations are the only beneficiaries of the IP changes, and everyone else is worse off.

I find that above quote from Larry Page kind of disturbing, because it seems to imply that even a company with the money, power and influence of Google doesn’t know how to hack government. Even Google doesn’t seem to know how to deal with technologically clueless yet meddlesome politicians who often don’t understand the repercussions of their actions. This is in stark contrast to the NRA and the gun lobby, who seem to have a remarkable ability to get politicians to do what they want, even if what they want is kind of insane. While it might be hard to read into the thinking behind Larry Page’s rambling Google I/O 2013 keynote speech, a lot of it does sound like a geek frustrated at being screwed by government. But while Page might be imagining a fanciful geek utopia unrestrained by burdensome, restrictive and misguided government intrusion, I’m wondering where are the geek equivalents of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president — a guy with an uncanny ability to keep government at bay in the face of much media ridicule and public hostility. Where are the tech industry’s rhetorical soldiers in the war against government overreach?

If it’s too hyperbolic to describe it as a war, then it is at the very least a game. It’s a game we have to play whether we like it or not, no matter how distasteful or uninteresting it may be, if we want to have any chance protecting our digital rights and freedoms.

The NRA appears to be an organisation that’s remarkably effective at playing the dirty game of politics, even though it’s far more concerned with the interests of its corporate backer in the firearms industry than the rights of individual gun owners.

Even though I care little for their cause, I find myself fascinated by their methods. Like them or loathe them, they are obviously effective. Much like money printing economists, the gun lobby is very good at getting politicians to do insane things, like letting insane people easily buy guns. While economists have managed to convince the nation that the cure for an economy crippled by too much debt is more debt, the gun lobby have managed to convince the nation that the cure for a country plagued by gun violence is more guns.

Both economists and the gun lobby have demonstrated the remarkable power of bullshitting to achieve their insane ends. So maybe there’s something us geeks can learn from all this, as we struggle to battle governments more and more determined to encroach on our technology industries, and take away our digital rights and freedoms.

Maybe there is some truth in the overblown rhetoric of the NRA. Maybe in the modern bullshit world of politics corrupted by mega-corporations with their mega-campaign-donations, there is no such thing as government without government overreach. Because there will always be an agenda.

Perhaps the gun lobby is right to fear a little gun control will lead to a lot of gun control. After all, it started with a little software patent sneaking it’s way into the patent system, and now decades later, stuffed full of junk software patents, the patent system is a horrible, broken, bloated mess that stifles innovation and benefits no one apart from patent trolls and large corporations.

Perhaps the gun lobby is right to fear a gun owner database, as a little government data collection will inevitably lead to lots of government data collection. Just like limited government power to intercept communications of criminals and select terror suspects has lead to the NSA building a multi-billion dollar data centre so they can read and store every email from everyone everywhere forever!

So maybe the solution to overzealous government sticking its tentacles where they don’t belong, is to fight bullshit with bullshit. So maybe the gun advocates have got the right idea. They are not giving the government the benefit of the doubt. At all. No wriggle room, no leeway. Because maybe they have a point: That any government, given half chance, will abuse any power it is given. So they do whatever they can to stop even reasonable gun control measures, out of a perhaps a legitimate fear that reasonable gun control will inevitably lead to unreasonable gun control. So the try to ensure the government doesn’t get any more power, no matter how well meaning the intent of that power might be.

There is possibly as lesson for us geeks in all this. Maybe this is the attitude we need to adopt. After all, we have been screwed many times by government overreach. Legitimate intellectual property laws (copyright) lead to a broken intellectual property system (software patents, DRM). Small scale wiretaps lead to widespread NSA spying. Give the government an inch, and they pull the whole fucking rope out of your hands and arrest you on suspicion of terrorism! (Because who else but a terrorist would be holding a rope!) So maybe it’s time for an NRA style zero tolerance approach to government restrictions in the digital realm, complete with hyperbolic rhetoric. No software patents, because software patents are stifling innovations and destroying the technology industry. No censorship, because the government will inevitably use it to curtail free speech. No copy protection, because a little copy protection will lead to restricted competition and monopolistic practices by corporations.

It’s also instructive to note that not only is the NRA good at what it does, but it no doubt helps that gun owners tend to be a vocal and passionate bunch. This quote from an academic in a Salon.com article sums things up nicely:

“The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it’s how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail ’em, they call ’em, they fax ’em, they show up at meetings. The typical person who is for gun control is very different from the [pro-gun] person calling you or being right there, being an annoyance, hassling you personally. They’re much more activist than the other side and that’s what really produces their gains.”

Compare and contrast this to the pointless geeky slacktivism of opponents to the Coalition’s FTTN NBN.

We geeks bitch and moan in blogs, online forums and social media, where politicians don’t care and don’t notice. It’s time to take the battle into the real world, and really get in the face of politicians, if we want to make a difference.

Politicians are going to keep screwing us geeks until we learn how the make politicians fear us, in the same way American politicians fear the wrath of the gun lobby.

It’s time for the geeks to take a stand. It’s time to let the politicians know that we will not give up our digital rights without a real fight — in the real world. It’s time to let the politicians know they will have to pry our digital rights from our virtual cold dead digital hands.