The Internet is not a Surveillance State…

In his March 16, 2013 opinion column on, Bruce Schneier called the Internet a “surveillance state”. In the piece, Schneier complains that the Internet now serves as a platform which enables massive and pervasive surveillance by the State.  State sponsored and ordained surveillance, however, is not synonymous with the Internet.  Schneier’s use of the word ‘state’ is ill-advised, his goading conclusion thereby misses the mark.

The Internet is not a State.  States can do something to limit the invasiveness of web-based services used in the public and private sectors alike, but they don’t, because any vision of infinite prosperity based on digital-age intellectual property rights and patents relies on the current content-control model of value extraction (of which Internet use, more accurately web use, is the most prominent mass-culture manifestation) not only persisting but becoming ever more prevalent.

Web-based service providers such as Facebook and Google are not the Internet, but rather are web-based platforms built on the Internet.  The superior user-experience of such services accrues a dedicated user base for basic communication functionalities. The design idiosyncrasies of these platforms define popular culture. However just because certain service providers  have become dominant does not mean that the techniques or strategies they employ are fundamentally superior. These have become dominant because they have evolved a business model which ensures a generous ROI. Without exception, the leading platforms ensure value for their investors by trading in user data.

There are myriad ways to use the Internet, there are myriad different paradigms for Internet-enabled communication, collaboration and other social activities which can and are being explored. Whether or not they can “compete” with the Googles and Facebooks, depends today entirely on whether they can produce sufficient “surplus value” to satisfy investors, thereby to attract sufficient funding to produce superior user experience.  In all the world wide web there is not a model for this which is not centered on the harvesting and analysis of user data.

Since much of the world already finds itself on the ‘client’ side of automated services for much of their waking life, the competition is on to deliver the “highest quality” of such service, anticipating client’s predilections and desires. In other words, as everybody knows, the old customer service saw recurs, “please excuse the inconvenience, we are … to serve you better”. The qualms one has about permitting unmitigated and unmonitored access to one’s social life are discounted as a mere inconvenience one must endure so that the machines can “serve us better”.

The state likewise asks us to put up with the invasion of privacy in order to provide us with such things as “security” and “democracy”. If we look closely at those two commodities we are being offered in exchange for our private sphere, we may not be so sure of the fairness of the deal. “Security” for one, may come in myriad forms, but the form of “security” which is offered to us is one determined through lobbying by security companies, which, no surprise, promise to offer us better service the more we open up our lives to data collection.

The Internet is not a ‘state’, it can be ruled over by states, but in principle, it belongs to all humanity. The Internet is not an ephemeral service, it is a network of very real, material computers which are located indisputably in specific real material buildings at specific real material locations, under nominally specific local, regional, national and international jurisdictions, right now. There is nothing fundamentally abstract about the Internet, it is as hard to fathom as the electricity grid on which it is practically dependent.

States can produce and maintain infrastructure like electricity grids and networked computers connected in the Internet. They can, but, today, the tendency is for states to delegate private entities to do this. This is said to be more efficient. Popular dictum is that the price to pay for such services is privacy. States have traditionally been moderate in exacting that price for fear of incurring the wrath of the populace. Private entities which belong to no particular state, when and if they incur such wrath, pretend it is up to the state to moderate their behaviour. Privately, the actors for state are discouraged to regulate for fear of inhibiting “prosperity”.

Therefore, states are increasingly impotent to rule over the Internet. The Internet has become a surveillance system used by private companies and their clients, the states, alike “to serve you better”. Behind this innocuous promise, the knowledge about private citizens is used to hone customized media designed to compel users to purchase anything from clothes to security to ideology. The big-data industries will build the patented processes which transform data mined from users into patented automated services. This is advertised as the keystone of the 21st century economy. In the perpetual panic of austerity finance capitalism, who would dare embolden the state to emperil the perceived slim auspices of escape from financial ruin the surveillance/data-collection industry-driven economy offers us?

But the Internet is not a surveillance state. The Internet, as described in the article, has come to be used as a most efficient technology for pervasive data surveillance. States use surveillance technologies when they are available to the degree that the laws permit. Today’s laws permit private companies to do things with surveillance data the state traditionally cannot without going through lengthy legislative approval processes. It is through the obligation to produce profits that private companies have been permitted to transgress legal limits on invasion of privacy. The private companies have thus played a vanguard role in loosening up legal restrictions protecting individual privacy.

Surveillance at work has long been accepted as integral to taylorist notions of efficiency and productivity. Now that the work place has extended to be almost indistinguishable with daily life, the fact that surveillance has followed along seems unsurprising. While mobile computer were advertised to liberate us from the cubicle, it  has made for an environment where one’s employment is perpetual, again, it is no surprise then that surveillance technologies have followed.

As business rationale and strategies evolve, as the boundaries between work time and leisure time dissolves, enterprise ethics entrench themselves in every aspect of social life, and surveillance has followed, if only so that the instruments on which one coordinate’s one work-leisure hybridity can “serve you better”. So the prevalence of surveillance is a consequence of the interspersal of productive labour time in life time. Ironically the call from the left to integrate and acknowledge so-called affective labour will have as the main notable outcome that these activities will become subject to data-acquisition monetization and surveillance.

Bifo noted in a recent speech that in 1977 he was (radically) militating against the traditional career-work regime, where people spent their entire adult lives working for a particular company.  Now it is not without some bitterness that he notes, bursting the worker out of the workplace has resulted in today’s worker having to work for numerous companies all the time.

The government’s own performance is measured through massive-scale data acquisition. This data-acquisition is indistinguishable from surveillance, the surveillance permits the government to detect, intervene with, and if necessary terminate its own practices which are determined to be inefficient, or counter-productive. Therefore the government, in order to prove to the citizens that it is doing a good job, exploits all the opportunities for surveillance opened up by vanguardist capital.

But the Internet is just a network of computers, which provides functionalities. It is not a state. The state could, in principle, elect not to use the Internet for surveillance, and could restrict the data-collection activities of private service providers. I have outlined above why this is unlikely, but it is possible. Private capital would likely take revenge on such a government, and the citizens would likely come to disdain its decision. Under global capital there really is little alternative for states to “keeping up with the Joneses’” surveillance service industry. Massive pervasive surveillance is understood simply as a precondition to prosperity.

“Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.”-Bruce Schneier

One wonders who Bruce Schneier refers to with the pronoun “we” in his parting shot.  Certainly prominent organisations such as EFF in the USA and Open Rights Group in the UK have been working for years to help web users appreciate and understand the latest online privacy concerns, among other burning issues of the digital age. And there are thousands of initiatives around the world working to criticize and raise concerns about the egregious asymmetries of power on the web. High-profile conferences and actions are organised, excellently researched publications are made available, yet these initiatives get only muted coverage in the mass media.

The problem is not for lack of trying, besides whatever bias the corporate-controlled mass media outlets may exercise, it is also  due to the fact that these critical organizations rely on people to contribute voluntarily, in their spare time. In other words, dissent, alternative viewpoints, proposals and even services cannot compete. The industry or economy which sees its success as contingent on ever more pervasive data-collection from individuals is unlikely to finance critical initiatives to the extent that these might hire more paid staff, and thereby make their contributions more attractive, accessible and appreciated.   The state may step in here and subsidize such critical organizations to some degree, but only under severe admonishment from the dominant web-service industries.

Networked-service and networked-content businesses with their increasingly data-acquisition-oriented profit models have become extremely important and influential in national economies. If Bruce Schneier is sincere about protecting online privacy, he had better look not to the state, but to the capitalist conditions of the production of web services which compel corporations to develop, implement and constantly improve the invasive practices that offend his sensibility.