Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support
Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?
How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.
The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call ACN.com here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:
Thank you for being a regular user of [ ACN.com ].
Our records suggest that your [ ACN.com ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ACN.com ]. You can make copies of [ ACN.com ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme. ]
We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.
The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ACN.com ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone ACN.com‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.
When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’
So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.
‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’
Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.
Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media: ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’ One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’
What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has graduated from unremitting surveillance to:
- demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors
- insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions
- cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken
In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’
This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’ ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’ ‘Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’ — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’
A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ — an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.
In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.
In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.
Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.
** No, not their actual unit of measurement.