The public-private partnership of American infrastructure
Third, the sense of unconditional victory that civil society in both Europe and America felt over the defeat of the Total Information Awareness program – a much earlier effort to establish comprehensive surveillance – was premature. The problem with Total Information Awareness was that it was too big, too flashy, too dependent on government bureaucracy. What we got instead, a decade later, is a much nimbler, leaner, more decentralized system, run by the private sector and enabled by a social contract between Silicon Valley and Washington: while Silicon Valley runs, updates and monetizes the digital infrastructure, the NSA can tap IT on demand. Everyone specializes and everyone wins.
This is today’s America in full splendor: what cannot be accomplished through controversial legislation will be accomplished through privatization, only with far less oversight and public control. From privately-run healthcare providers to privately-run prisons to privately-run militias dispatched to war zones, this is the public-private partnership model on which much of American infrastructure operates these days. Communications is no exception. Decentralization is liberating only if there’s no powerful actor that can rip off the benefits after the network has been put in place. If such an actor exists – like NSA in this case – decentralization is a mere shibboleth. Those in power get more of what they want quicker – and pay less for the privilege.
A noble mission and awful trip-planning skills
Fourth, the idea that digitization has ushered in a new world, where the good old rules of realpolitik no longer apply, has proved to be bunk. There’s no separate realm that gives rise to a new brand of “digital” power; it’s one world, one power, with America at the helm. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, a former senior official at the State Department who went to work for Google, had the misfortune to publish a book that assured us that this was no longer the case – “The New Digital Age” – just a few months before the Snowden revelations. Rare is a book that ages so quickly. Look no further than “Internet asylum seekers” in its index. “A dissident who can’t live freely under an autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states’ Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtual freedom on its Internet,” they claim. “Being granted virtual asylum could be a significant first step toward physical asylum, a sign of trust without the full commitment.”
The sheer naivete of statements like this – predicated on the assumption that somehow one can “live” online the way one lives in the physical world and that virtual politics works on a logic different from regular politics – is illustrated by the sad case of Edward Snowden, a man with a noble mission and awful trip-planning skills. If it’s “virtual asylum” that Snowden is after, he can get his dose of “virtual freedom” in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. Somehow – silly him? – “virtual freedom” doesn’t seem to be enough and it hasn’t occurred to him – perhaps, he has not read the book yet? – to seek “virtual asylum.” Bolivia’s Evo Morales, stranded in Austria on suspicion that his plane had been carrying Snowden, would have had a good laugh had he stumbled upon “The New Digital Age” in a Vienna airport bookstore. Perhaps, had Morales only tweeted harder, none of this would have happened.