Wikileaks and the “Dissent Tax”

First things first: Merry Christmas! A Christmas post is imminent. Stay tuned ūüėČ

And second: It’s been a looong time! I know, I know… but work and law school conspired to make regular posting impossible. However, I have several writings maturing, so hopefully there’s going to be something for you in these days.

With that being said, I would like to share with you an excellent opinion piece by former programmer and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci on The Atlantic: Wikileaks Exposes Internet’s Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy. There, and among other interesting points of view, she contends that the whole Wikileaks affair exposes the “dissent tax”, the fact that corporate entities, understood in its widest sense (i.e., agencies, governments, corporations) exert the power to swiftly restricting a pseudo-free speech of anyone who threaten their vested interests.

Some quotations are in order:

Horrifying as this vision is, it simply distracts from the main lessons of the Wikileaks affair: the increasing control of (relatively) unaccountable corporations and states over the key components of the Internet, and their increased willingness to use this control in politicized ways to impose a “dissent tax” on content they find objectionable. Ability to disseminate one’s ideas on the Internet is now a sine qua non of inclusion in the global public sphere. However, the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a “quasi-public sphere,” where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent…

Further, while one may disagree with the particular methods chosen by Wikileaks–and I certainly have my criticisms– […] It seems to me that states (and corporations) have become increasingly secretive and opaque, while people are increasingly exposed. This divergence was lampooned quite effectively by Saturday Night Live. “I give you private information about corporations for free,” SNL’s Assange quipped, “And I’m a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s the Man of the Year.”…

During these past weeks, […] I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech…

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere “quasi-public sphere,” the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private.  If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power….

The real cause for concern is the emergence of an Internet in which arbitrary Terms-of-Service can be selectively employed by large corporations to boot content they dislike. What is worrisome is an Internet in which it is very easy to marginalize and choke information. The fact that information is “there” in a torrent, or openly on a website that is not easily accessible or has been vilified, is about as relevant as your right to shout at your TV…

What the Wikileaks furor shows us is that a dissent tax is emerging on the Internet. As a dissident content provider, you might have to fight your DNS provider. You might need to fund large-scale hosting resources while others can use similar capacity on commercial servers for a few hundred dollars a year. Fund-raising infrastructure that is open to pretty much everyone else, including the KKK, may not be available. This does not mean that Wikileaks cannot get hosted, as it is already well-known and big, but what about smaller, less-famous, less established, less well-off efforts? Will they even get off the ground?

Well, that is enough. Go check the article. It’s worth it. Thoroughly recommended as major food for thought.

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