In a parting message to the National Security Agency, nameless activists claiming affiliation with the hacker group "Anonymous" threw down the gauntlet.
"Your organization is a blight on humanity," an oddly inhuman voice explains. "For these reasons, a new idea must be elevated. We call for the separation of Internet and state. The hideous surveillance apparatus of the police state is a barnacle on this ship called [the] Internet, and it must be scraped off. We must protect this ship."
The message, published on Sept. 9, was the final addition to a campaign the hactivists called "OpNSA," featuring a series of vaguely intimidating videos lecturing members of Congress about accepting donations from companies that specialize in defense and surveillance. They targeted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) with sometimes long-winded explanations of their complicity in the growth of the surveillance state, warning that Anonymous is taking steps to erase the "virus" they've introduced to the Internet.
Granted, this is coming from the same YouTube account which proclaimed as recently as August 29 that the U.S. was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, so take that however you will. Still, the nature of "Anonymous" is such that a host of ideas, many of them conflicting and some wrongheaded, tend to come pouring out. That's just what tends to happen with leaderless groups anchored to the Internet, but when one of their more lofty ideas catches on, it really catches on (see: Occupy Wall St.).
Maybe that's why the idea of a separation of Internet and state hung with me. Imagine that, for a moment. It's impossible, right? The Internet was essentially created by the state -- but then, so was private property, which used to belong entirely to the king. Maybe what's needed is a wholly new way of thinking about the Internet that hasn't occurred to us yet because our technology hasn't evolved far enough. Or maybe it's just too late for true freedom of speech online and we'll have to start over, somehow.
How would a complete separation of Internet and state function? Our global communications network is such a patchwork of public and private cooperation already that it would probably prove impossible, if not just for political reasons then logistical ones as well. But what about a wholly new network built on top of that? Or alongside it? At just over 20 years old, we surely haven't seen even the midway point of this technology's development.
The NSA is a ghastly invention that rests upon our current infrastructure like a capstone, gazing deeply into our lives and those of our family and our friends, collecting endless datapoints that paint a near complete picture of who we are and what we're up to at any given time. The Internet's very existence guarantees that it will become fragmented, and many parallel networks will rise in place of what once was. Perhaps one of those could evolve into a true digital commons, free of government and commercial influence or interference. But that's a long way's off.
The much-maligned Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, warned in his recent book "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet" that the current rush by governments to embrace mass data collection poses such a monstrous threat that it could one day lead to the overturning of modern civilization.
And yet, I cannot help but feel hopeful. We today still have a chance to stop this corruption and hand down to our children a global, digital commons where the individual is valued and can always express ideas freely and be heard by any one or millions of people across the planet. The public Internet and the foundation of a digital commons could be a place where the values of freedom and democracy flourish and stand strong throughout time, if planted and allowed to grow.
The Internet could continue to be one of the greatest gifts Americans ever gave to the world, were we not so intent on spying upon every single electronic communication taking place on the planet at any given time.
I've got to imagine that some crafty cyberpunks out there will soon fashion small-scale mesh networks outside the Internet that will one day become treated by the U.S. government as the tools of terrorists and bootleggers; indeed, something like this has already happened with an anonymizing technology called Tor. It won't be long now before whole countries begin breaking away from the Internet, or putting up nationwide barriers to free communications, leaving this once-amazing global network a fractured, disjointed shadow of its former glory.
That's the next chapter of the NSA-versus-everyone, and I'm not sure that America changing course at this late stage would prevent it. So, maybe a separation of Internet and state isn't such a bad idea, as ludicrous as it may sound. Maybe that's exactly what our children will need just to survive one day.
Despite this weird proposition that I seem to be stuck on for the moment, I also found the "Anonymous" video published Sept. 5 to be particularly poignant. From time to time, their revolutionary screeds can be briefly poetic, and a few turns of phrase in their "OpNSA" video "Call To Action" caught my attention.
"Men, women, and children have died for the very freedoms that our government is trying to take from us," the group's ever-present electronic voice explains. "We cannot and must not allow them to succeed, lest all that has been fought for be in vain... We must unite and stand together before it is too late. Do this for the love of your family, for the love of your friends and your country. Do not let this once magnificent country that our forefathers founded and fought for remain a fragment of its former glory any longer. ... The revolution is now."
Photo credit: Flickr user AnonymousMXPT, creative commons licensed.