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[liberationtech] IGP Blog :: Technology as symbol: Is resistance to surveillance technology being misdirected?

Evgeny Morozov evgeny.morozov at
Thu Dec 29 07:11:20 PST 2011

My problems with Milton Mueller's argument are manifold:

1. I'd argue there is no "budding movement" engaged in "resistance" to
"surveillance technology"; Mueller is attacking strawmen here. There are a)
reporters who are interested in how and why some Western companies keep
breaking the export laws (would we prefer them not to report on such stuff,
even if the laws are stupid?) b) technology activists who oppose much of
this technology in principle, regardless of whether it's used in
democracies or autocracies c) politicians, NGOs and activists - many of
them dedicated to a particular issue (e.g., free speech or corporate social
responsibility) or country (e.g. Iran) who see surveillance trade as an
opportunity to advance their own agenda and attract media attention to
whatever cause they are fighting.  Yes, there are moments when agendas of
all these groups overlap but to treat this as a movement that somehow aims
to ban these tools instead of addressing foreign policy issues to me seems
unfair. Yes, there is always a danger of succumbing to techno-fetishism, of
assuming that "fixing internet freedom agenda" = "fixing freedom agenda"
(didn't someone write a book about it?) but I'm yet to see anyone involved
with surveillance trade posit anything along these lines. As has already
been pointed out on this list, people who actually go to these fairs and
get us all these wonderful corporate brochures are on the record as fierce
critics US foreign policy (which may explain their occasional travel
problems!). I also think it's a bit misguided to expect people concerned
with CSR and making sure that tech companies behave ethically to switch
careers midstream and become critics of US foreign policy; these are not
mutually exclusive pursuits but I don't know why we should deny validity to
one of them.

2. I think that Mueller himself misdirects his anger; the root of the
problem is in US domestic policy towards surveillance, it's not in its
foreign policy. But to backtrack a bit: the technologies that are up for
export go far beyond DPI (see this list by Bugged Plant - Many of them are
actually single purpose, despite all the hot rhetoric on this list - and
yes, many of them do look like weapons to me. (Well, some are in theory
dual purpose if you count fighting terrorism from, say, Saudi Arabia or
Tehran a valid government activity). So if one really wants to do something
about them, one has to inquire about why there is demand for such tools
among Western law enforcement agencies, how it all ties to FBI's Going Dark
problem, FBI's plans for CALEA-2, and so forth. (I touched upon some of
these issues in my keynote at 28C3 two days ago). To imagine that we can
kill the market in these tools if we can only straighten the US policy on
Saudi Arabia (good luck on that front) seems naive to me. I'll concede that
the media coverage did not get into the domestic angle - but it's an
opportunity for the future. Media-wise, the big task ahead is to actually
making local media - newspapers in Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Israel,
etc - excited about this narrative, so that they can chase both local
suppliers and the extent to which these companies first came into being
thanks to domestic demand.

3. I take issue with the anti-regulation skepticism  (defeatism?) expressed
both by Mueller and others on this list. Yes, some sanctions are too broad
and they end up hurting ordinary uses but it's not a given that ordinary
users will be hurt if the new sanctions are kept narrow and target
individual companies and actually learn from the unintended consequences of
earlier rounds of sanctions on Syria and Iran. No one is arguing that
sanctions will solve the problem; they will only raise the costs (btw, this
WaPo article<>quotes
a State Department rep saying exactly this - no one is starry-eyed
about the effectiveness of sanctions). Likewise, I am not fully convinced
that requiring tech companies to a) verify where their gear is used b) turn
it off if it's used in Syria or Iran or Country X is such a terrible idea.
What's the argument against? That a bunch of hackers will break into, say,
Jordan's censorship system and turn off the country's Internet filtering
system remotely? Well, great - let's celebrate. Similarly, I don't think
that requiring Western tech companies to verify that the gear they sell is
used in the countries where it's been shipped to (by checking IP addresses,
for example) somehow constitutes pervasive surveillance. And even if it
does, what's so bad about watching a bunch of authoritarian governments? I
understand that Mueller's cyberlibertarian philosophy does not allow for
any censorship or surveillance, no matter how beneficial, but I'm not sold
on this in the context of tools sold to dictators.

4. I'll be the first to acknowledge that some of the media reports on
surveillance trade have been a) populist and anti-corporatist b)
technologically illiterate (DPI in Israel was a good example of this) c)
lazy (Bloomberg, in particular, has a soft spot for quoting the same set of
people). And yet compared where we were in 2010 or 2009 - with all the
silly reporting about "Twitter Revolutions" in Iran - that's still a sea
change (for the better) in media coverage. Next frontier for Bloomberg, WSJ
and others is to make a more explicit connection to why these tools are
made in the first place, thus linking foreign policy to very mundane issues
of domestic surveillance.

So those are just a few of my problems with Mueller's argument.

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