Sterling's "The Ecuadorian Library" vs civil liberties groups

Earlier today, Xeni blogged Bruce Sterling's latest essay, "The Ecuadorian Library." I thought this piece had a lot of merit, but was brought up short by one passage that made me think that despite Bruce's keen observations, he hasn't been paying very close attention to what groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been doing since 2005. Indeed, when it comes to the view he presents of Internet activists, Bruce is just plain, flat-out, factually wrong.

Sterling writes,

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

The civil lib contingent here looks, if anything, even stupider than the US Senate Intelligence Oversight contingent — who have at least been paying lavishly to fund the NSA, and to invent a pet surveillance court for it, with secret laws. That silly Potemkin mechanism — it’s like a cardboard steering wheel in the cockpit of a Predator drone.

This is wrong.

In 2005, a former AT&T technician named Mark Klein walked into the EFF offices in San Francisco with an amazing story: he had been ordered by his boss to install a beam-splitter on AT&T's main fiber optic trunk and run it into a secret room at the Folsom Street central office, where the NSA would be wiretapping the entire Internet, without a warrant.

For more than eight years and three presidential administrations, EFF and its allies at groups like the ACLU have waged tireless war in the courtroom and the court of public opinion over the mass, illegal, warrantless surveillance of everything and everyone on the Internet. This is no secret: it's been front-page news for close to a decade.

There is a poisonous, revisionist version of Internet history that goes like this: "The Internet was popularized by starry-eyed utopians who thought that technology would only liberate and never enslave. These people never anticipated that some day, governments and crooks would seize control of the network and use it to spy upon, compromise and prey upon the powerless at unimaginable scale. Today, as governments and criminals converge on the Internet as a convenient way of watching everyone all the time, it's time to realize that these cyber-utopians were naive fools, who should never have been given a hearing."

But the reality is that the world of civil libertarians and cyber-activists has been defined, since its very earliest days, by the fear that technology would be used for authoritarian purposes and crime. The crypto wars -- EFF's origin story -- were all about that fear.

The free software movement has always been closely entwined with the wider free speech/privacy/civil liberties world, and for good reason: the lack of transparency and freedom in our tools is a gateway to totalitarian control.

Finally, the network policy world -- with its rallying point of network neutrality, an outgrowth of early Internet principles like peering -- likewise recognizes that the major risk of concentration in the telcoms sector is the ease with which the entire sector can be captured as an element of state surveillance.

Historical revisionism be damned. Since day zero, the "civil liberties contingent" has been shouting as loudly and forcefully as they could about the dangers of technology without policies, rules, norms and code that enshrined liberty. Yes, they also dreamed of the possibilities for networked freedom, but this doesn't make them cockeyed optimists: it means that they've known, all along, what they were fighting for -- and what they were fighting against.