Online Privacy Is Worth The Extra Work

This past week, Laura Poitras's documentary, Citizen Four, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When he provided the documents that revealed the details of universal spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the subject of the documentary, Edward Snowden, wrote an accompanying manifesto. His "sole motive", he wrote, was "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The U.S. government, in conspiracy with client states, chiefest among them the Five Eyes - the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - have inflicted upon the world a system of secret, pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge." (1)

Snowden, who made careful plans to try to avoid capture before he could get the materials out, nonetheless assumed that he was going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. Even though his greatest wish was for the public to know about the surveillance programs, he was pessimistic about the possibility that the programs would be reformed through the existing political system. His manifesto concluded with the repurposing of a quote from Thomas Jefferson about the U.S. Constitution: "Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography."

In other words, maybe if the public found out, they would find the idea of being surveilled by unaccountable powers unappealing, or maybe they would not. If they rejected universal surveillance, they might demand that the program end. But maybe the political system was in fact so closed, undemocratic, and unresponsive that it could not change in response to such a demand. But even then, the public had options: the public could change their behaviour in order to make universal surveillance more difficult. How? What are these "chains of cryptography" to which Snowden referred?

In a lecture at the 31c3 conference late last year (2), Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras showed the systems that the NSA have so far been unable to crack. Taken together, and used carefully, these systems offer the continued possibility of privacy, a fundamental right, a right which enables people to form their personalities, their philosophies, and their politics, a right which has been taken away by spy agencies for their own grandiose plans.

My Radical Teacher article - A summer in Islamabad, and a student view

Radical Teacher's 101st issue is about Teaching Across Borders. In it, you can find my article about my experience teaching in Pakistan in 2008, which I've also written about in this blog.

Since then, I saw a new article by Aamna Shafqat, a student at IIU-I, and found the student perspective fascinating. If you want to read a bit about teaching and learning in Pakistan, I'd recommend both!

The Rojava Revolution and the Liberation of Kobani

Since September of 2014, the city of Kobani has been in the news as the site of a battle between Kurdish forces from the Rojava region and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). At the end of January, the Kurdish forces (YPG and YPJ) announced that Kobani had successfully repelled the attack. But ISIS is still in control of villages surrounding Kobani and maintaining its threat to other parts of Rojava.

Sardar Saadi is the coordinator of the Rojava Media Project, a media production and training project for young people in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, and a doctoral student in anthropology based in Toronto. I interviewed him on February 7, 2015.

Justin Podur: Can you describe your visit to the Rojava region, and tell us a bit of the geography so we can orient ourselves.

Sardar Saadi: The Rojava region is the Syrian part of Kurdistan, in northern Syria, estimates are of a population of 3 million. It has borders with Turkey and with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is governed by Masoud Barzani. It has three enclaves or cantons: Jazeera, Kobani, and Afrin. I went to the Jazeera canton and Qamishli, which is the biggest Kurdish city in Syria, for three weeks in August 2014. I was there as part of a team to establish a training center for a media project, rojavamediaproject.com.

There is not a lot of info on our website right now, but you can find some basic information on what our goals from this project are. I was also very curious to see what's going on on the ground in Rojava, and basically to talk to the people there and do some preliminary fieldwork for a possible future study.

Taylor Swift's Millions Aren't Worth a Single Prison Term

At an awards show at the end of 2014, musician Taylor Swift accepted her award saying that 2014 was an important year because it was the year she stood up for herself as an artist. In July 2014, she wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. (1) Swift makes economic arguments about the value of an artist's work: “the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” She reasons as follows: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is.”

What does Swift blame for society's failure to recognize this value? “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically,” she writes. By blaming piracy, file sharing, and streaming, Swift has adopted what author Rob Reid called in 2012 “Copyright Math”, in which the movie industry claims that the “economic loss” from file sharing of movies amounts to US$58 billion dollars – more than most of the value of US agriculture (2).

Unfortunately, as outrageous as it is, copyright math is no joke. In the same year the millionaire Taylor Swift stood up for herself as an artist, one of the best known, and most defiant, file sharing sites, The Pirate Bay, saw its founders arrested in an international manhunt. The three file-sharers, Fredrek Neij, Gottfrid Warg, and Peter Sunde, were handed prison sentences by a Swedish court in 2009 (3). They went into hiding. Sunde was arrested in June in Sweden and is serving an 8-month jail term. Warg was arrested in Cambodia and is serving three and a half years. Neij was arrested in November 2014 in Thailand. The investigation into the Pirate Bay was extensive, the seizures of equipment massive, and the attempt to shut the site down has been thorough and vindictive (4). The Pirate Bay is being made an example of.

#IStandWithPanzi

In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in the city of Bukavu, in South Kivu, on the Rwandan border, Panzi Hospital has been a refuge for survivors of sexual violence. So why is the Congolese government using the tax system to try to shut it down?

The director of the hospital, Denis Mukwege (1), has argued that the pattern of violence that he and his medical staff have encountered there constitutes a new pathology, a kind of weapon of mass destruction (2), deployed by armed actors to destroy the social fabric of the eastern DRC and control the region and its resources. Dr. Mukwege has won numerous humanitarian awards for his work. As a regional hub for survivors of sexual violence, Panzi has attracted international attention and support. Beyond his medical work, Dr. Mukwege has been a strong voice in international forums reminding the world that, as long as weaponized sexual violence continues, the Congo cannot be said to be in a "post-conflict" situation.

The Kivus are still overrun with armed actors. The Congolese Army is a major human rights violator. Militias sponsored by the DRC's neighbours, Uganda and Rwanda, as well as armed groups of exiles from these countries, operate in the countryside and victimize the civilian population. The Ugandan and Rwandan armies periodically enter Congolese territory to conduct operations of their own. And a multinational United Nations force, one of the UN's largest missions, has been in the east for about 15 years. Against this backdrop, Panzi has been a haven for civilians, a place where women could heal, and a place from where a lot of the energy and organization to help the region recover has come.

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Hacktivism

A review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous, by Gabriella Coleman. First published at TeleSUR English.

On December 17, independent journalist Barrett Brown, who has been in jail for two years without trial, had his first sentencing hearing (see the report by The Intercept). Barrett Brown was threatened with one hundred years in prison for analyzing documents that were hacked from private security companies HBGary and Stratfor. Brown never hacked anything - he received the documents and was reporting on them.

Interesting points emerge from a posting by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who reacted to the sentencing hearing. Assange pointed out that the charges against Brown were of two kinds: the first, pertaining to his reporting on the Stratfor documents, which should be protected under free expression. The other, pertaining to things he said when the FBI threatened to charge his mother unless he turned over his source material. The worst thing Brown said about the FBI agent was a tweet that read, "illegally shoot the son of a bitch". Assange pointed out that this tweet was Brown quoting Fox News's Bob Beckel, who called for Assange's assassination. (Assange posted this link as proof.) Beckel has faced no FBI investigation, no legal consequences, no arrests. Barrett Brown, who quoted him, has been in jail for two years and is threatened with many more. Brown and his lawyers have gag orders against them - the prosecution told the court that Brown has shown "intent to continue to manipulate the public through press and social media comments," thus undermining the enormously powerful government's right to a fair chance of obtaining a harsh conviction against this independent journalist.

Anti-Authoritarian Current: A Review of Dixon's Another Politics

First published on TeleSUR 16 December 2014

In Another Politics, Chris Dixon presents a part of the North American left, defining it early on in the book as the “anti-authoritarian current”. A significant part of the book is dedicated to defining this current, its ideology, and its practices. Dixon is explicit about being a part of this current, and while the book raises some of the dilemmas and internal criticisms of the current, it is largely a celebration of the current's beliefs and methods.

How is the current defined? Dixon identifies three strands: Antiracist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. Antiracist feminism is Dixon's summary for what is sometimes called intersectional analysis or anti-oppression politics: the idea that there are multiple oppressions, along lines of gender, race, and class, and that true liberation requires liberation from all of these oppressions. Moreover, in this current, none of these oppressions can be assigned a place of primacy over the others. Prison abolitionism is “a set of politics aimed at the complete elimination of the institutions of incarceration” (pg. 38). On anarchism, Dixon emphasizes that this current is defined by a “reconfigured anarchism”, a bundle of features fusing “consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and direct action”, “a strongly prefigurative movement culture based on working together collectively, sharing resources equitably, challenging power relations, and supporting one another”, “along with a commitment to egalitarianism, mutual aid, and freedom as well as a far-reaching critique of domination.” The “glue that largely held it all together was a shared counterculture and template of activities” (pg. 42).

After defining these three strands, Dixon goes on to further define the current according to four “antis”: anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. The four “antis” help define what the current is against; a chapter on prefigurative politics discusses the positive aspirations of the current as its members try to redefine relations within their groups as they challenge oppressive institutions in society.

The Power of Crazy Ideas: A review of Naomi Klein's 'This Changes Everything'

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for "the revolution" in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker's unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Colombia: The Early Signs of a Violent Peace

First published at Telesur English

In my last column, I described the Colombian peace process between the government and FARC. I discussed possible spoilers of the peace agreement, especially the role of the paramilitary-linked former Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. I also discussed the many things that the peace process will not solve, including some of the most gruesome violence occurring in Buenaventura, committed by the 'demobilized' paramilitaries.

Since then, we have seen some of the peace process's first murders of indigenous people, this time by the FARC. What happened is summarized in an open letter published by Pueblos en Camino. As the peace negotiations enter their final phase, the FARC faced its victims in Havana and acknowledged wrongs it has committed. On October 30, they made what WOLA called their "clearest recognition that it (FARC) owes something to its victims."

The Colombian Peace Negotiations: Prospects and Continuing Horrors

From TeleSUR English

It is now about four years since the unofficial initiation of the ongoing peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government (secret approaches were made starting in October 2010), and over two years since the official opening of talks based on a “General Agreement” signed on August 26, 2012. There have been thirty rounds of negotiations to date, which have brought negotiators from the government and the FARC to Havana.

The Washington Office on Latin America has created a website, colombiapeace.org, that collects documents and media reports in a single place, and has even arranged them on a remarkably complete, and ongoing, timeline (http://colombiapeace.org/timeline2014/), which we can use to begin to understand what is happening with the peace process.

The process is being supported by an unusually expansive set of actors. The Cuban government is hosting the talks. The United States government, the United Nations, most of the governments of Latin America, the Venezuelan government, are all supportive. Effusive statements have been made. Uruguay's President Pepe Mujica last year called the peace process “The most important thing happening in Latin America”. In July 2013, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez suggested that the process could be opposed by “only idiots, those who do not love their country”. In November 2013, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa went further, suggesting that “only psychopaths” would boycott the process.

Speaking of which, despite the remarkably wide-ranging support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, Colombia's former president Alvaro Uribe Velez is staunchly opposed, as is his political party (which lost at the polls earlier this year, in an election which effectively became a referendum on the continuation of the peace negotiations). Whether the Argentinian and Ecuadorian presidents were thinking of Uribe when they mentioned “idiots” and “psychopaths” is, of course, unclear. Uribe's attempts to spoil the peace process go far beyond running against it in an election, however, a point to which I will return.