The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight



January 8, 2011

Glenn Greenwald reports on the case of Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP and former Wikileaks volunteer. The U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed Jonsdottir’s Twitter records, as well as the records from many other users of the service, from November 2009 onward on the grounds that the department believes that the records may be used in a criminal investigation.

What is newsworthy about this is not that the U.S. DoJ continues to investigate what the American government must, by definition, regard as a violation of its sovereign prerogative to release classified information. Rather, it is that Twitter requested the federal court order be unsealed to allow the affected users to object to the government’s investigation, which had hitherto been kept secret.

Twitter’s actions allow us to further refine Charli’s thoughts on the recent Foreign Affairs article by Clay Shirky. In particular, this should remind us that the U.S. can’t rely on the public sphere to always advance its state interests, and that there are real dangers to relying on a “civil society” that is principally constituted by private corporate actors in order to advance democratization.

As Shirky notes, the U.S. has partially embraced freedom, Net neutrality, and everything else cyberrific about the Web because of what it perceives as the instrumental value of those attributes. Famously, the State Department under Secretary Clinton has embraced Twitter as a tool of public diplomacy. During Iran’s summer protests in 2009, the State Department even apparently used Twitter as part of a soft-power exercise in attempted regime change. Alerted that the site was about to be taken offline for maintenance, Clinton aides worked to keep the site online during the protests. (The New York Times accounts suggests that a pair of twentysomethings did this on their own; one wonders, of course, if this isn’t a rewriting of history to account for the fact that the “Twitter revolution” was in almost every respect a giant fail whale.)

The irony that the same technologies have now become the enabling conditions for the dissemination of Wikileaks, a minor-league public diplomacy embarrassment that has also posed acute risks to specific individuals who may be named or falsely accused of espionage by unfriendly governments, is so obvious as to need no exposition. (Despite the observations from astute critics that Wikileaks, like all organizations, requires resources and access, as well as some measure of societal legitimacy, to proceed with its endeavors, we shouldn’t overestimate how high the barriers to entry are–especially for entrepreneurs who may be carrying less baggage than Assange.)

Shirky recognizes many of these arguments, and elaborates a more nuanced argument about why the United States should support an information infrastructure that will help democratize the world’s remaining and rather astoundingly resilient authoritarian states. His contention is that eventually repressive states will face a tradeoff between allowing open communications, which facilitate trade and economic growth, and choking off dissent, which requires the state to be able to throttle (both in terms of “moderate the speed of” and “strangling”) open communications.

Yet Shirky overstates this dilemma. He recognizes that samizdat and Xeroxes and fax machines and text messaging and Twitter–each generation, it seems, brings its own new revolutionary technology–have only sometimes contributed to democratizing outcomes. Yet he argues that in the long run, open communication leads to open societies. Consider the printing press and the postal service, he says. The former facilitated the Protestant Reformation and the latter the American Revolution. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Shirky’s optimistic technological determinism rests on questionable historical inferences. To paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is too soon to tell what will be the consequences of the movable type printing press–and, a fortiori, of the Movable Type blogging software. After all, the most searching and expansive dictatorships in human history grew and matured in the twentieth century, and were every bit as enabled by twentieth-century technologies as were their democratic counterparts. (Imagine a Nazi Germany without the airplane or a Soviet Union without the telegraph, to say nothing of North Korea today without nuclear weapons.)

It is true that such regimes invest huge amounts of resources into censorship. Consider Internet censorship in Beijing. But it’s not at all clear that Beijing is trying to restrain the development of an ideal speech situation that will lead the Chinese people to rise up and demand Habermasian democracy. Rather, many accounts suggest that the CCP is more worried about the development of more nationalist and anti-corruption movements–neither of which, to say the least, is pro-democratic. Nor does the example of the USSR and of Eastern Europe offer much hope. Had Gorbachev never become General Secretary, the Soviet Union might well have been able to persist for generations longer as a decrepit, wasting regime that was nonetheless able to mobilize sufficient physical repressive power to sustain itself. In fact, it might well have turned out looking something rather like the government that Putin built, with fewer BMWs and more MiGs.

The relationship between the U.S. government and Twitter similarly demonstrates that the outcomes of the public sphere and the state’s interests are not always congruent. Twitter’s request to unseal the subpoena has led to some adverse publicity for the DoJ this weekend. And the State Department will of course have to spend some time soothing the hurt feelings of the Icelandic government, though in the long term all sides understand that the Melians Icelanders will have to give in.

The real damage to the Twitterites’ hopes for techno-democratization, however, lies in the fact that the Justice Department’s request is perfectly reasonable and justifiable by all legal standards. Twitter can’t refuse, so they protest by publicizing the request. Yet publicity in this case is simply precedent-setting, and it is a precedent that countries with Freedom House scores lower than America’s will happily cite. For repressive regimes, the benefit is clear.

A chilling effect will set in among the citizens of freer countries, as well. Just the rumor that the federal government would refuse to hire graduate students who read Wikileaks cable, as well as the more concrete instructions to federal employees and contractors not to read the material, has–in my direct, personal experience–led academics and grad students to shy away from discussing or reading such materials.

Just as important, we should remember that Google, Twitter, and Facebook are not communications technologies in the same sense that the printing press was. They are companies that require vast resources to operate and can function only with the permission of a host government. In an open society, they will promote openness. In a closed society, there is no guarantee they will do so. As always, economics and technology are important to determining political outcomes, but politics is primary.

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