April 25, 2016 | Posted in:blog

Brave New Fortress – republished, still relevant

(Smári McCarthy; Article for Arc magazine, July 2012)

Huxley predicted it, Barlow suggested it, we built it. In the capital of a sovereign landmass with three hundred kilopeople, a barren wasteland with the occasional tree, a group of gonzo futurists are hacking the political system, the legal system, and society in general. Their aim: to ensure that there’s at least a single fortress that can withstand the wave of oncoming evil.

On a rainy January day two years ago, an international group of hackers and activists met in a former fish factory by Reykjavík harbour, and started work on mapping out the biggest current and future threats to the free flow of information online. Driven by an understanding that information is the prerequisite for enlightenment, that a people without information is a people without freedom, we worked through the nights and days for two weeks. The last night, five of us sat in a hot and stinky hotel room running off the final draft. In our sleep-deprived humor, understanding the importance of the document we had in front of us, we all suddenly broke out into song. “First we got the bomb, and that was good, ’cause we love peace and motherhood,” we sang, in Tom Lehrer’s humorous style. Little did we know that two years later all of us would be caught up in an increasingly brutal fight against state secrecy, militarization and abuse of power in an effort to guarantee people the right to know.

In the last few years, the Internet has been militarized. The US government established ‘US Cyber Command’, ignoring several layers of etymological absurdity to bring about a branch of military intended to go head to head with enemy states in a manner as suave as the name implies. Replacing kinetics with electronics, they have demarcated cyberspace as the “Fifth Domain” of warfare, after land, sea, air and space.

When I asked whether it would be possible to create a Cyberspace Treaty, akin to the Outer Space Treaty which forbids the militarization of space, the answer was a simple “no.”( Brought up during OSCE’s “Internet Freedom” meeting. I asked the question via Twitter and got a verbal response which used to be available here – the answer was a bit more complicated than “no” – it was a “no, because,” followed by a lot of arguments which could equally have been said of space.)

NATO then established an ominously named ‘Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence’ in Tallinn, aiming to figure out how to prevent countries like Estonia from being blown off the net by hostile neighbors. Meanwhile, NATO’s top brass was busy drawing a secret line for kinetic retaliation against electronic attack – if the line is crossed, the full military might of NATO will be invoked as per article five of the treaty. For pseudosecurity reasons, nobody is allowed to know where the line is drawn: according to Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, if terrorists know how much electronic tomfoolery sets off the alarms, they’d play as close to the line as possible. What does this mean in reality? Can a kid in Farawaystan fiddling with his computer trigger a nuclear war if he starts portscanning the wrong box?

Drawing such a line may not be necessary, as it is NATO members and their allies that do most of the crossing. The US military has started using viruses, trojans and other malicious software machinations to infiltrate, surveil and sabotage Iran’s infrastructure. Germany opted not to attack a foreign state, but rather, with their “Bundestrojan” – a malicious Trojan horse built by the German government to spy on everybody they could and have the software report back any suspicious activity.

This activity has created, intentionally or unintentionally, a sellers market in 0-day exploits – previously undisclosed flaws in software that can be used to nefarious ends. Software developers who want to make a quick buck or hold a grudge can now ‘accidentally’ add a flaw into commonly used software and offer it to the highest bidder. In some ways, there’s always been a market for 0-day exploits, but there’s traditionally been more disincentives than incentives towards such behavior. Enter a whole new form of moral hazard: when software developers can maximize their profits by making sure their products are riddled with flaws, and such activity is legitimized by government actions, there is no moral reproach for being a bad guy. Pushing security liability over to the customer is what banksters do – we really don’t need geeks doing it too.

Meanwhile, back in civilian cyberspace, an industrial revolution is taking place. Before the dotcom bubble burst, the Internet was full of crummy Unix variants and buggy Windows 98 boxes behind patchwork firewalls jerry-rigged by their owners. Less advanced households opted for a 56.6 kilobit speed limit and a hefty phone bill to be passive consumers of the Internet, while a budding phile of digital artisans ran services on their sketchy rigs, like homesteaders of old. Decentralized, unregulated, anarchic, beautiful.

Then began the Industrialization of the Internet: Newly privatized phone companies launched themselves into the ISP market and started providing hermetically sealed Internet routers. Post-dotcom startups started coming up with vaguely realistic business models centered around keeping user’s data locked in centralized silos. State governments caved in to lobbyist demands for greater regulation of online activity. Cities were built on the net, and filled with content slaves, clicking their way through a mess of mind-numbing crud. Centralized, regulated, plutocratic, ugly.

Despite this centralization, some things got a bit easier. Those folks who made do with dialup back in the day, and all of their analog friends, they bought into broadband mania, raising the population of the Internet up well beyond the one gigaperson mark. At first, they stuck to Geocities and could hardly be blamed when they collectively decided that MySpace, LiveJournal and Friendster were the best things since sliced cheese. Napster single handedly started an arms race of epic proportions, where an uncoordinated army of horny teenagers figured out new and inventive ways of one-upping the content industry. This shifted business models beneath people’s feet and ultimately climaxed in a wave of functional minimalism: software should not be general purpose any more, everything shall become appified and platformized. The right tool for the right job, they said, and Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and The Pirate Bay appeared out of fat air – dripping with concentrated potential – to service whims both ethereal and concrete.

Eventually, these horny teenagers and their disenfranchised peers, economic roadkill and political outcasts throughout Europe and the Middle-East and North America, they rose. From the Arab Spring to the Indignados of Spain to the Occupy movement’s beginnings on Wall Street, an emergence of young, smart and capable people started demanding radical transparency and accountability. Information started flowing, often remorselessly, sometimes tragically, and left the governments of the world with a slight stink of urine in their pants and a trigger-happy variant of pre-traumatic stress disorder. As parts of the world started to see a possible democratic future on the horizon, others battled economic collapse, and the old crumbling state powers deemed it necessary to shore up their structural integrity with some good old brute force.

Militarized, industrialized, politicized. Everything was changing, fast. Against this backdrop of massive societal upheaval, the intrepid gonzo futurist weighs his options.

“Iceland was just a threat. A most stimulating and life-giving threat,” Huxley wrote. A few of us had recently watched our country crash and burn. But where the charred embers lay in a landscape of lava, a fortress is being built. Neatly avoiding allusions to poorly written fiction, this digital fortress exists in many realities simultaneously, bordering on meatspace, cyberspace, and a few other, slightly harder to discern spaces – one of which is thoroughly populated by lawyers.

In its physical manifestation, cables are being laid, wires drawn, and cargo containers are piled up inside massive warehouses, their innards churning away with raw computronium. The existing cables go to obvious places – Scotland, Denmark, Greenland, Canada. New cables are being planned and speculated, with less and less obvious destinations: New York, Galway, Murmansk. Tokyo, Beijing.

New warehouses are being built, more computational capacity installed. It looks slow to casual onlookers, but not to those who are staring at the torrential bitstreams, flowing outwards from these places, transcending the border into cyberspace, allowing all to see, everywhere.

The threat was simple. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” That was how it began. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us.”

The governments, in their militarizing grandeur, didn’t take the hint. The children of the digital age had been busy creating a world, “that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” and yet the governments decided to bring to the new world the same kind of war machines they’d used to destroy the old one.

The threat was simple: If you do not guarantee the people of this world the unconditional right to freedom of thought and expression, if you do not accept that people have a right to know, we will build a fortress to protect the free flow of information. From that fortress, we will mount an attack upon your broken systems, your poor philosophies, your rancid ideals. We will replace them with democracy.

Our fortress rises. It looks spectacular in the midnight sun.

Parts of it are of steel and concrete, parts from glass fiber, silicon, copper and tantalum. Parts are made from software. Parts of it are made from laws. “Government shall guarantee conditions that are conducive to open and informed public discussion,” we wrote, hoping to make it truth by fiat. “All are free to have their opinions and convictions and shall have the right to express their thoughts.”

The threat was simple: The Internet is an 8 trillion dollar economy, and it’s growing 20% every year. Meatspace industrial economies are shrinking at a similar rate, with economic crises like the one upon which we’re building the fortress. Is this really a fight you want to get yourself into?

“Future shock is social and psychological,” Justin Pickard states in the Gonzo Futurist Manifesto. “So keep asking: how do these observations make you feel?” There is a dangerous tendency towards hyperbole when discussing such transmundane topics as militarization and industrialization of the Internet, but that doesn’t make our gut feelings wrong. Despite almost lethal doses of continuous partial attention, the Internet generation is highly attuned to their amygdalic output. Humans are really good at knowing when their home is threatened. With an overbearing fear of the Internet not turning out to be the libertarian utopia John Perry Barlow wrote of in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, the gonzo futurists have assembled a rather large and comprehensive package of crazy space ninja shit.

Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, made Iceland out to be a place for “all the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own.” The idea we came up with, here in Iceland, after the crash, was that since much of the world’s political clout and an increasing amount of its military potential is currently being spent on destroying the most open and free communications network that has ever existed, we might as well put some of our unorthodoxy to good use.

Our fortress is a set of laws, regulations, political decisions, technical provisions, and other mechanisms aimed at making sure that even if the worst comes to worst, there will be a safe place for information in the world. We’ve established rules for source protection and media transparency, we’re currently rethinking how libel law works and working on eliminating laws which require telecommunications companies to retain traffic data. We’re trying to figure out how to protect digital databases from censorship, how to make sure whistleblowers don’t get jailed or forced into bankruptcy – or hiding. We’re trying to reconstitute the country itself with full government transparency. The details are mind-boggling, but it looks like we’re getting away with it.

One of the most important things about self-consciously individual people like the Icelanders is that there’s no adult supervision. Nobody has ever come over and told us that we can’t do things like this. So for now, we’re building our fortress here.
And when we’re done, or possibly even before then, we’re going to start building fortresses, forward operating bases and pillboxes all over the place, as little outposts of sanity in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. At first they’ll probably look more like American Indian reservations than fortresses (in fact, we’ve already teamed up with the Cherokee Nation, who passed a source protection law last spring…), but with any luck, soon democracy and enlightenment will be in fashion again.


(Feature image by Trey Ratcliff – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)