Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November 14, 2016


Adieu, the Progressive Internet?


Ernest Partridge

November13, 2016


During the afternoon of Election Day, November 8, the progressive website Democratic Underground was hacked and shut down. At this writing, five days later, it remains offline.

The identity of the culprit is unknown. Best case: a presumably Trump supporter acting spontaneously on his own – an isolated and rare event. Worse case: an early shot in an incipient cyber war against liberal dissent.

We must hope for the best case, and prepare for the worst. Absent any useful information we cannot, at this time, draw any conclusions regarding the source of the Democratic Underground hack.

Of course, the internet itself is in no danger. There is far too much commercial investment in it. Amazon, Home Depot, Victoria’s Secret, Target, and millions of other retailers and their congressional lackeys will see to it that the internet will live long and prosper.

But the internet "marketplace of ideas"? That’s quite another matter. A coordinated and persistent cyber attack against liberal and progressive websites could result in an American internet less free than the Russian internet is today.

This outrageous claim requires an argument.

In a June 2015 Vice TV interview, President Obama said: "what Putin is doing with state-run media and the suppression of civil society and the suppression of the internet and the suppression of dissenting voices is obviously different from what is happening here [in the United States]."

Granted, the state influence and presence in the Russian media is overwhelming, and this is most unfortunate. But it is not total. In fact, foreign publications are readily available in Russia, and the opposing parties in the state Duma (parliament) freely publish dissenting opinions. In addition, numerous independent publishing houses are flourishing in Russia, as are independent news media, such as Moscow Times and Nezavisimaya Gazeta and websites, such as inoforum.ru.

As for the "free" US media, remember that 90% of that media is owned by six mega-corporations. Regarding US media diversity, recall the unanimous media support for the Iraq war, and the unanimous acceptance of Colin Powell’s bogus argument before the UN Security Council. Recall too that at that time, dissenting voices on the corporate media, such as MSNBC’s Phil Donahue, were thrown off the air. But lets put all that aside, perhaps to return in a future essay.

Instead, let’s focus on the internet in Russia, about which I have direct personal knowledge. Obama says that it is suppressed.

I happen to know for a fact, that Obama is wrong. The Russian internet is open and free.

I know this because I frequently correspond by email with several friends inside Russia, whom I have acquired as a result of my professional activities and publications in Russia.  Over the past several years, I have sent and received hundreds of internet links to and from Russia. Many of these links, to sources in the US, Europe and Russia, are openly critical of Putin and his government. My Russian friends and I discuss these links, so clearly they are read in Russia. Never have any of my Russian friends told me that any of the links that I send them are "unavailable" in Russia. All the links that they send me are intact. Moreover, Russian friends fluent in English tell me that they routinely access the internet to read foreign news and opinion, and to watch American TV shows and movies on the internet, totally without restriction. (More about this in my next essay).

So much for the alleged "suppression of the internet" in Russia. It is as free in Russia as it is in the United State – for the moment.  Will it continue to be free in both countries? That remains to be seen.

But this much I know as a confirmed fact, contrary to widespread opinion in the United States, including the opinion of the President: there is no internet suppression today in Russia (except, possibly, of internet porn, which I would not lament). "We are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts."

Let me be clear: I am no fan of Vladimir Putin. He is much too autocratic for my taste, and if I were a Russian I would likely vote against him. But this is the essential point: I would be free to vote against him without fear of retaliation, as many of my Russian friends have done, none of whom have been sent to a Siberian gulag. Nor have any of my friends who have openly criticized Putin.

Putin’s Russia has many flaws, but it is not Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Returning to cyber sabotage: it is not the only threat to the progressive internet. Privatization, counter-terrorism (e.g., the USA PATRIOT ACT), an end to the "open access" rules in place since the invention of the telephone – all these devices and more could shut down internet dissent. I so argued in my September, 2003 essay, "After the Internet", an updated version of which follows below.

So how might a Trump "Ministry of Truth" and the corporate-GOP-media complex suppress dissenting progressive internet opinion? To begin, through,



There appears to be significant movement in this direction.

The primary obstacle to restriction via privatization is "the open access" or "common carrier rules." Not long after Alex Bell called for Mr. Watson, it was decided that there would be no restrictions on the use of the telephone system. Accordingly, the telephone network has always been open to all users, and the telephone companies have been forbidden to interfere with the message or to restrict its access to anyone.

Because the government is showing no interest (yet!) in abolishing common carrier rules for the phone system, all appears fine and dandy as far as the dial-up networking is concerned.

However, there are no such assurances for broadband internet access: DSL, cable and satellite. In 2003, FCC chairman Michael Powell along with a majority of FCC commissioners, with the enthusiastic endorsement of the cable industry, were eager to lift common carrier rules from cable and DSL transmission.

Accordingly, Karen Charman of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) wrote at the time:

If the Bush administration lets large media conglomerates and local telephone companies have their way, the Internet as we know it – that free-flowing, democratic, uncensored information superhighway – could soon be a thing of the past.

The internet itself is not going away. Rather, technological advances, changes to the rules governing its use and the continued consolidation of media empires are combining to turn it into a conduit of commerce, booby-trapped with barriers and incentives designed to keep users where dollars can be wrung from them. As a result, a lot of freely accessible information and websites may become difficult or impossible to access, hindering the efforts of those posting that information to reach others.

And Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy wrote:

The Internet’s promise as a new medium – where text, audio, video and data can be freely exchanged – is under attack by the corporations that control the public’s access to the net, as they see opportunities to monitor and charge for the content people seek and send. (c. 2003, link lost).

The motives for this transformation are not simply political – not merely an attempt to "FOX-ify" the internet. Rather, the internet is seen by commercial interests as an underutilized money-machine, which means that the internet may soon suffer the fate of broadcast spectrum, which was originally designated, not as a commercial enterprise, but as a common "public resource." And so, Jeff Chester continues:

... This business model will erect high economic and technical barriers to entry for non-commercial and public interest uses of the high-speed internet, threatening civic discourse, artistic expression and non-profit communications. In moving to implement this highly centralized vision for broadband, the cable industry does not simply ignore the democratic and competitive history of the Internet – it is actively hostile to it.

Accordingly, the restriction of progressive opinion may not first appear as a simple and crass corporate pronouncement, "We don’t agree with your ideas, so we won’t allow you to put them on the net." Such high-handedness would invite law-suits. Instead, dissenting individuals and non-profit organizations would simply be priced out of the internet, while the four-figure applications fees and three-figure monthly charges would be chump change for marketers and right-wing publications and foundations.

As it turned out, the attempt in the Bush administration to privatize the internet was met with massive public protest, as 99% of the messages to the FCC opposed the ending of "common carrier" rules.

So can we now be confident that our Constitutional guarantee of a "free press" (in contemporary terms, "free media") will be protected. Not necessarily. The internet, like the press and broadcast media will succumb to A. J. Leibling’s rule: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." And so, if Rupert Murdoch, or Richard Mellon Scaiffe, or brothers Koch buy out the internet and then refuse access to "treasonous" progressives, then they will be doing so of their own free will. Thus, we will be told, will "freedom" of the internet be preserved. Right?

Of course, there will be no shutdown of the entire internet. As noted above, there is too much commercial investment involved. You will still be able to order from Victoria’s Secret, Sears, Eddie Bauer and Amazon, etc. Also, Free Republic, The Drudge Report, and other right-wing sites will be safe. But individual entrepreneurial progressive sites such as this one, will be out of luck, and out in the cold.


The Henry II Ploy:

In Jean Anouilh’s play, Becket, King Henry, having lost control of his one-time friend and current Archbishop, Thomas á Becket, mutters to a bunch of his drunken buddies, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The rogues take this as a royal decree, and proceed to dispatch Becket in the cathedral.

Henry, of course, later denied he ever had such a horrible thing in mind.

These days, this is called "plausible deniability."

Similarly, one can imagine Donald Trump saying, "who will rid me of this meddlesome internet?"

If the word goes out from the highest offices to silence by sabotage the liberal/progressive voices in the internet, we can be confident that an impermeable curtain of "deniability" will be in place between those who initiate and those who execute this order.

Soon after that order is given, a new array of exotic and selective viruses and worms will infect and shut down "politically incorrect" web sites, sharing the fate of the Democratic Underground today. Meanwhile the commercial and right-wing sites will be unaffected.

If notice is made of this selectivity, presumptive blame will be placed upon "right wing zealots." Then (presumably) Rudy Giulini’s Justice Department will promise "prompt and effective investigation" – to be followed, of course, by no action at all.

The net effect will be that dissenting internet voices will be effectively silenced.


The Camel's Nose:

"Of course," we are to be told, "we endorse the Internet as a medium of free and wide-ranging expression and opinion. But surely, no one can object if we keep the Internet free of child pornography. Moreover, ‘freedom of the press’ doesn’t allow libel or slander."

OK, no kiddie porn. But watch out for the libel/slander business. The law does not allow for "prior constraint." (Cf. the Pentagon Papers case). One is free to print or broadcast libelous statements, and then face the legal consequences. It is those consequences after the fact that deter libel.  Next, the crunch question:  would a Trump-appointed judiciary pursue those "consequences"?

"But surely we can’t allow the terrorists to use the Internet for their nefarious schemes!"

If we concede this point, we’ve given away the game. For who decides who is a "terrorist" and thus to be denied access to the internet? Presumably, the Justice Department. Moreover, the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition of "terrorist" is notoriously and dangerously vague. According to Section 802 of the act, "Domestic terrorism" includes acts within the United States that are "a violation of criminal laws" that "appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" or "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

By this account, Martin Luther King was a "terrorist." In general, peace and civil rights demonstrators and protesters, along with union pickets, are "terrorists." Ban "terrorists" from the internet, and by broad implication, most progressive individuals and organizations, along with their opinions, could be excluded.

And so, if the internet is to remain available, this may be so only due to our determined, relentless, and creative efforts to keep it open and free.


What is to be done?

We have basically two questions: (a) How do we maintain our access to the internet, and (b) if, despite our best efforts, we are shut out, how then do we get our message out, and coordinate our efforts?

Keeping the internet open and free. This should be our first order of business. The Internet "commons" must be protected by law, which means legislation from the Congress.

And so, public interest organizations such as Media Matters, FAIR and the Center for Digital Democracy must keep a watchful eye on ongoing developments regarding Internet control and ownership, and they must continue to inform their public – which means, primarily, internet users. Reciprocally, such organizations need and deserve public support.

Never forget, that the public constituency in support of a free and "open access" internet is enormous. Most American households now have access to the internet, and most of these get at least some of their news from the Internet. If word gets out and is widely disseminated that "their" internet is about to be transformed into a marketing tool and a propaganda mouthpiece, and furthermore that the ordinary citizen will have to pay exorbitant fees to maintain a personal website, the public outcry might stay the administrative hand of the FCC, as it has in the past.

"Eternal vigilance," said Thomas Jefferson, "is the price of liberty." It may also be the price we must pay if we are to preserve the Internet commons.


After the Internet:

Alas, we must also think seriously about what we must do if, despite our best efforts, we lose our access to the Internet.

The progressives have, for the most part, been effectively excluded from talk radio, the print media, and the airwaves. (There are worthy exceptions, of course – the Krugmans, the Goodmans, "Real News Radio, etc. -- but their rarity only validates the right-wing media bias). Now the Internet, the last effective refuge of progressive-liberal opinion might be lost.

But the protests of free men and women, denied one outlet, will seek and find another. "Truth crushed to Earth, will rise again!" (William Cullen Bryant).

But how? Here are some suggestions:

American dissenters might find assistance abroad, in the "overseas internet." They could seek, and likely would be welcomed, at such websites as The BBC and The Guardian of England, and The Toronto Star. It is one thing for a government to silence dissent within its borders. It is quite another to attempt to stifle dissent abroad.

Some brave souls might try to "break into" the "privatized" Internet, inviting legal retaliation from the corporate owners. A court challenge to the restriction of access could prove to be productive.

Samizdat. (From the Russian: "Sam Izdatel'tsvo" -- self-publishing). The dissident movements in the Shah’s Iran and in the Soviet Union had no access whatever to the state-run media – indeed, their attempts to get their message out were ruthlessly repressed. And yet, eventually, they triumphed. Their modes of communication, although primitive, were manifestly effective.

Today, even if the progressives were totally excluded from the media (not likely), they have far better alternatives than the Iranian and Soviet dissidents.

In Iran, the dissident message was distributed via audio cassette tapes which, when received, were copied and then passed on. Similarly, in Soviet Russia, where ordinary citizens were denied access to duplicating and copy machines, manuscripts were laboriously copied on typewriters, with five carbons, and then distributed with the solemn promise that the recipients would also produce carbon copies.

If the American political "underground" is reduced to hand-to-hand distribution of "subversive" material, it will enjoy enormous advantages denied to the Iranian and Soviet dissidents. Rather than taking several hours or even days producing five copies of contraband opinion pieces, all that and more can be accomplished in a few seconds at the computer where dissident opinions can readily be transferred to CDs and thumb drives. And while the Soviet officials could restrict access to copiers and duplicators, there is simply no way that the digital genii can be put back into the bottle. There are too many computers "out there," and they can not all be recalled and shut down without shutting down the economy as well.

However, it is most unlikely that we would be reduced to copying and passing samizdat CDs and thumb drives hand to hand. An American government reduced to such levels of suppression and thought-control would probably not be tolerated, given our political traditions. But one never knows. Who among us could have imagined what we have come to since the 9/11 attacks.

The Voice TO America. Despite the corruption and downfall of the once-magnificent American media, there remains in the United States, one untouched beacon of journalistic integrity: The Voice of America. The VoA understands that the best, indeed perhaps the only, guarantor of credibility is an uncompromising allegiance to truth and to scrupulous confirmation. (See my "What if American loses its voice").

Ironically, this impeccable source of news is not available to the American public, for according to its charter, Voice of America broadcasts and news copy are not to be distributed domestically. Thus the audience of the Voice of America, in fifty languages throughout the world, gain unbiased and accurate information about the United States, that American citizens are hard-pressed to obtain from their own media.

So my suggestion: Given the deterioration and the present peril of the American democracy, perhaps it is time for "The Voice TO America." Of course, the aforementioned journalists in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere are individually performing a fine service for us with the insight and integrity that we once enjoyed from our own media.

Still, seventy-five years ago the United States came to the defense of democracy in Europe. So perhaps it is time for the Europeans to return the favor, now that our own democracy is in peril. If the Internet, the last refuge of the dissenting American progressives, is lost (or even before this happens) it will be time for the establishment of "Radio Free America" and "The Voice TO America."

Today, many independent progressive websites are facing grave financial crises. Where are the liberal billionaire "angels" – eg. Dan Cuban, Nick Hannuer, etc.? Where are the Hollywood millionaires – Streisand, Beatty, DiCaprio, Sorkin, etc. – now that we need them? A few five figure checks – pocket change for these guys – could keep endangered websites like The Smirking Chimp, Democratic Underground, Truthout, Consortium News and Democracy Now, afloat. Absent substantial grants from the affluent, these worthy websites desperately need support from their users.

Meaning you, gentle reader.

Contribute now, lest you regret not doing so after they are gone.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .