Responding to oligarchic corporatism and government surveillance in the 21st Century

There are numerous threats that face us in our current day and age. One could spin the “Wheel of Fate” to select which threat has the greatest potential to kill us today. Putin and an increasingly imperialist Russia, or perhaps a jihad-driven and nuclear armed Iran. There’s always the 21st century boogeyman Terrorism™, featuring the Islamic State and guest starring Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Boko Haram. We can’t forget about the institutionalized racism and violence at the hands of the police; or global climate change and the steadily increasing economic inequality (both in the US and around the world).

While all of the above pervasive threats — along with numerous others — could each deservedly win the “Ms. Biggest Threat To The World” Pageant, the tiara should rightfully go to the threat the encompasses them all: the confluence of wealth, power and information between corporate and government interests. Our private and public sectors have aligned to undermine the free exchange of people, goods and ideas; and now, they’re trying to control the Internet.

Like all technological innovations, the Internet can be used to enrich the public or to concentrate wealth and power for the few; it can be used for the betterment of society or, more frequently, to oppress the masses. It is this concentration of power, information, and wealth in the hands of the privileged few — politicians, government agencies and corporations — that I believe is the greatest danger facing us today. More immediate than global warming, more prevalent than terrorism and more likely than a nuclear holocaust, this threat is real, and its consequences are happening all around us right now.

Since 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, global citizens —American and otherwise — have seen more and more of our civil liberties being taken from us at an alarmingly rapid rate. Immediately following 9/11, the Bush administration used the emotionally charged political environment to drag us into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to push the PATRIOT Act through Congress, granting the US government near unilateral surveillance and wiretapping abilities, while suspending numerous civil liberties. In so doing, Bush set the stage for increased government and corporate cooperation and information sharing.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program were perhaps the most shocking evidence of cooperation between the government and corporations. Internet and telecommunications companies “voluntarily” handover all emails, messages, and video and voice calls of both Americans and non-Americans to the NSA. Not only is this in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, but it is done for everyone, regardless of any alleged “terrorist” ties. And thanks to the PATRIOT Act, it does not require a warrant.

The 2010 Citizens United ruling and the 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling further increased the power and influence of corporations by granting them privileges and protections typically reserved for individual citizens. These two rulings combine to turn corporations into “super-people”, with Constitutional Rights and the ability to spend billions of dollars to influence the outcome of elections. Not only does this make the choice of who to vote for about the same as choosing between Coke or Pepsi, but it ensures that before long, as Bernie Sanders has warned, “Congress will become the paid employees of the billionaire class.”

Not even Hilary Clinton is a safe bet to vote for to disentangle corporations and the government. According to Julian Asange, Clinton has strong and problematic ties to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. While there are other search engines out there besides Google, Google’s global —and perhaps also geopolitical — dominance cannot be ignored. With a few lines of code, Google can instantly change who has access to what information. One study even showed that, if it so desired, Google could influence the outcome of elections by tweaking its search engine algorithm. Despite its Orwellian mantra of “Don’t be evil,” Google’s business practices should give pause to netizens across the globe.

To be sure, it isn’t all bad. Congress’s failure to pass SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), which would have granted corporations and the US government the ability to censor entire websites and cut-off sites from their revenue streams, and the recent FCC rules for Net Neutrality, classifying the internet as a public utility. This, for the time being, means that the Internet is still egalitarian in principle, and able to be equally accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

But that isn’t for lack of trying on the part of our government. Earlier this month, the US Senate Intelligence Committee passed CISA in a 14-1 vote, which is being dubbed “Patriot Act 2.0.” Under the guise of a “cyber security measure” to protect companies from recent hacks, CISA would allow the government to use information on consumers collected by corporations in criminal proceedings. This means that corporations who collect information on consumers (name, credit/debit card information, etc.) can be made to “voluntarily” give that information to the government at any time for any reason and, again, without warrant. This bill also makes it much harder for future leakers and whistleblowers to act in what is already a harsh legal environment, and makes the punishment much worse for them if they do come forward. Thankfully this hasn’t (yet) passed in either full house of Congress, but the committee results make it seem like only a matter of time.

And it isn’t limited to your information; now, a host of benign online choices can be used against you if the government doesn’t like them. Just last week, and more or less under the radar, President Obama signed an executive order declaring a national emergency to deal with (in the most vaguely worded language possible) “the increasing prevalence and severity of malicious cyber-enabled activities originating from, or directed by persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States”. This executive order makes donating funds, goods, or services to any person(s) suspected of engaging in malicious cyber-enabled activities outside of the US illegal. I find section 7 of particular interest (emphasis added):

Sec. 7. For those persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order who might have a constitutional presence in the United States, I find that because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets instantaneously, prior notice to such persons of measures to be taken pursuant to this order would render those measures ineffectual. I therefore determine that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in this order, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1 of this order.

This means that if you have “a constitutional presence in the US” and are caught donating funds, goods, or services digitally to someone suspected of engaging in malicious cyber-enabled activities, you can be arrested and have your property seized by the US government without any prior notice (or, importantly, due process). So donating to, say, Edward Snowden or Julian Assange is now not only illegal, but also punishable without due process. This should raise massive red flags for all of us.

And if you do not already feel like your privacy is being invaded yet, how about the FBI knowing where your whereabouts are at all times via a secret device called a “Stingray,” which tricks your cell phone into revealing its location. In response to being threatened by a judge’s court order into disclosing information about “Stingray”, the FBI ordered the police to drop all criminal charges that relied on information garnered from the program.

Some may be fine with increased surveillance in the name of security, or say that they have nothing to hide, but what happens when the government can brand anyone a “terrorist” simply for having views that run counter to their interests, or the interests of their corporate benefactors? Going beyond that, there is a stark difference between CCTV cameras monitoring activity and our identity and private communications being stolen from us by those who potentially wish us harm. Given the choice between living in a police state with the illusion of freedom and security, and living freely with an increased risk of attack, I’d much rather be free! Or at least put it to a vote, and let me have a say before having my freedoms taken away from me by the government-corporate police state.

Stop Mass Surveillance, via Bocman1973 /

Stop Mass Surveillance, via Bocman1973 /

Instead, there is an increasing level of cooperation between public and large, private interests on which the public has no recourse, turning the United States into a corporatocratic oligarchical police state.

It’s a classic game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” Corporations fund both candidates — donating based on incumbency first and ideology second — so that they have influence no matter who wins. Politicians then give the corporations what they want, like the 29 members of the House who penned the “Internet Freedom Act” in response to the FCC ruling, and are all backed by major telecommunications companies. It is increasingly looking like Orwell, Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche were all right: Big Brother is watching us, and technology is being used to control society. What’s more, most Americans see this happening and shrug: “‘We have invented happiness’, say the last men, and they blink.”

It’s already been established that We the People are becoming increasingly powerless against corporate influence, government intrusion or even the local police — who have now been given military grade weaponry.

But Nick, you’re saying to yourself, I’m just sitting in Starbucks drinking my fair-trade vegan soy half-caf chai latte, I can’t stand up to government and corporate oppression! Yes, you can. Even in an environment of increased surveillance and control, the Internet allows the individual to have a voice and a platform for self-expression. It only takes one viral picture, video, or article, to get the attention of those in power. Furthermore, there are little things that we can do every day to help fight the good fight, and to that end I present The AMERICAblog Guide to Surviving in a Corporatocratic Oligarchical Police State™:

  1. Think critically. Be aware of how and why corporations and politicians are appealing to you
  2. Be engaged. Read the news from multiple and diverse sources, and speak up when you see something wrong;
  3. Be aware of your digital footprint. What information are you posting to social media? What is linked to your email address or credit/debit card information?;
  4. Use the Internet and local community to make your voice heard;
  5. Vote. There are some progressive candidates out there who are at least saying that they will stand up to corporate influence in politics;
  6. Encrypt your data. It’s easier than you may think.

Never forget that a group of individuals created human society and the laws that it follows. As our own group of individuals, we have the power to change it.

Nick Lehn
Nick Lehn recently received his Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. His favorite topics include anything pertaining to science and society, global politics, social justice, globalization, and technology. Nick recently moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, MD.

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