A 10 Minutes Walk In The Future Of The Internet (And Journalism)
This summer, for reasons connected to my work as researcher, I’ve spent some time in London. If you’re interested in journalism and the web, this was a good time to be in town. While Berlin has evolved (once more) into being the crypto capital of the world, London is still at a crossroads for journalism. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently published its latest investigation, an impressive work on children seeking asylum in the UK being sent back to Afghanistan; the Frontline Club hosted a panel on deteriorating source protection and at news:rewired journalists and researchers discussed possible future digital scenarios of newsmaking.
I should stress one point: discussions about “digital journalism” are discussions about the Internet and the way we will access and consume pieces of information, news, articles and any other outcome of “acts of journalism”. Regardless of which platforms we use and how we use them, for a relevant portion of the time, when online, we’re on news.
So any discussion on the “future of X”, when it comes to journalism, is also a discussion about the future of the Internet and the way we want it to be. The current debate on tech companies becoming publishers and the recent news-oriented initiatives from Facebook, Snapchat, Google and Twitter is an example: Silicon Valley is looking at journalism in a far deeper way than Jeff Bezos simply buying the Washington Post. The issue is about the space journalism will occupy on the Internet in the future.
This is not directly happening in London. The reasons why the English city is at the crossroads of the Internet and journalism are to be found in two sea change events that shaped the space of journalism in the last few years: WikiLeaks and the Snowden case. It has been a while since the major MegaLeaks were released: five years since Collateral Murder and five years since Chelsea Manning’s arrest back in May 2010. Snowden was two years ago: in June 2013 The Guardian published the first article on NSA/GCHQ surveillance. Three and five years are a long time for journalism and a lot has been going on since then. WikiLeaks has managed to survive, despite major economic and political restraints and recently it has been publishing some of the most interesting material since its loudest days.
Snowden is still an open chapter. When it comes to surveillance, we certainly had a learning curve: we came to know how exposed we were, how the original idea of the web had been disrupted in favour of a dystopian, corporate/governmental-led vision of control. We probably knew already, but we received overwhelming evidence and it was much worse than we thought. It was a wake-up call. We, as researchers, as journalists, as hacktivists and activists, have been good at it: we had a debate, definitely more evident in some places than others, but we had one.
We stopped and said, let’s start again, let’s reframe the issue from the very beginning. Snowden ended up inspiring the biggest reform of the NSA in 30 years. The Patriot Act was basically cancelled, companies and some popular online services started adopting better cryptography, Even journalists started thinking of adopting better security to protect their work and sources. GlobaLeaks and SecureDrop are spreading among reporters and newsrooms and many news outlets are using https.
France is going in the direction of mass surveillance, together with New Zealand and Great Britain, where David Cameron is thinking of banning encryption. Switzerland is tempted and Italy tried to introduce malware usage in a recent anti-terrorism bill. Then we had the Hacking Team exposure — again, via WikiLeaks — and we got more evidence of how easily malwares and surveillance technology can be bought and used by governments of every kind, including democracies, including Italy, my home country, where Hacking Team is located.
Of course, the Milan-based company is not alone and surveillance is still a global problem: instances of communication being massively wiretapped have been found in Central Asia, Russia, China, Bahrain and other countries defined as “Enemies of the Internet”. Yes, we have been good at raising awareness, we have been good at denouncing. But we are still far from the end of the road. And we lost Caspar Bowden.
While working on these issues both as a researcher and as a journalist I face a danger: not being able to effectively communicate the scale and breadth of these problems: surveillance is technically complicated, cryptography can be complicated and writing about these issues poses the question of how to communicate effectively what is going on and to what extent. Scholar Vincet Mosco described as “digital sublime” the tendency of considering everything digital as something ephemeral, with no physical connotation or, even, something happening in a separated intangible aerial universe made out of code.
His latest book, To the Cloud, is a profound analysis of the perils and dangers of such a perspective. Data centers may appear far away, distant and not connected with our lives, just because data has no physical connotation per se. The risk is then considering surveillance and online privacy as immaterial things, invisible and consequently less invasive on our lives.
Of course this is not true. These issues do matter and affect anyone connected to the Internet, especially those who think they have nothing to hide. At re:publica in 2014, Jacob Appelbaum and Jillian York ‘friendly trolled’ the audience by asking the “I have nothing to hide” guy in the crowd to stand on his chair and take his pants off. Of course the guy refused. This is a great example of how to effectively communicate the impact of surveillance to people. I loved it.
Perhaps the WikiLeaks/Snowden cases were not visible or tangible enough to make an impact on public opinion. WikiLeaks and Snowden are not just “Internet issues”.
Artists have contributed by trying to give physical evidence to them: Trevor Paglen has dedicated his work to expose and represent secrecy and surveillance, lately by flying over NSA facilities in the US and screening surveillance code names on buildings. YoHa and Matthew Fuller tried something similar with the WikiLeaks leaks with their “Endless War” installation that gave WikiLeaks’ documents physical evidence.
In the last two years I have spoken to both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Both of them are bodyless to me, being a voice on the phone and a figure on a video respectively. And this is where walking in London makes a difference. While I was in town, The Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition called “All of This Belongs to You”, aimed at “examining the role of public institutions in contemporary life and what it means to be responsible for a national collection”.
Among the objects on display was a smashed MacBook with its destroyed components. It was not a simple laptop, rather one that had been used by Guardian journalists to store the original Snowden cache of documents. Those computers were destroyed in a symbolic, grotesque GCHQ-supervisioned demolition session in the newspaper’s basement, in order, they argued, to stop the circulation of leaked documents.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is located in South Kensington, walking distance from Knightsbridge. It takes about 10 minutes to walk to the Ecuadorian Embassy at 3 Hans Crescent, London SW1X 0LS. Julian Assange moved there after being granted asylum by Ecuador three years ago. He has not left the building since.
To reach the embassy, you have to walk past Harrods and its army of Lamborghinis. It’s a noisy area but it becomes very quiet the closer you get to Hans Crescent. You realize you’re in the right place because of the four policemen patrolling the entrance, and the “WikiLeaks office” window. CCTV watches every window facing the street, from different perspectives. That’s the place where WikiLeaks mainly operates now. WikiLeaks is just around the corner.
It only takes 10 minutes to walk from the smashed Snowden computer to the Ecuadorian embassy. But that’s a 10 minutes walk in the future of the Internet, and the journalism we want to read and produce on it. The computer and the embassy are both symbols of where we are now and how bad it can get for the Internet and journalism in this era.
In 10 minutes you get the chance to focus on these last few years and really perceive them in front of you. It has been an enormous, turbulent and dangerous time. We got so far. We frequently hear questions about whether we should be pessimist or optimistic about the future of the Internet (and journalism). Cory Doctorow said something about that dichotomy in Berlin, last May. The future of the Internet is actually about hope. We should ask ourselves about our duty now. Our duty as researchers, journalists and activists who are aware of how bad it can get, is now to bring along other people. And take them for a walk.