Whistleblowing is the new Civil Disobedience: Why Snowden matters

Via the Bruce Schneier piece we commented on recently, I found this indispensable take on the Snowden Affair and why it matters. The insight is brilliant. Consider it closely. (My own thoughts follow after hers.)

The writer is danah boyd and her bio is here. Briefly, she’s “Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales.”

Whew. Me, I hold down the Distinguished Chair by the Window at La Maison chez nous, which doubles as an online cooking school.

Ms. boyd is not nobody. Here’s her insight (my emphasis and much reparagraphing):

Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded.

But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.

Here’s that insight again, slowly:

1. Snowden is offering a template for whistle-blowers — he’s showing how to up the game.
2. Leaking is being rebranded as modern, effective civil disobedience.

Let those two points sink in. Here’s Ms. boyd again, expanding on point 1, “upping the whistleblower game”:

In recent years, increasing numbers of concerned citizens have been coming forward as whistleblowers, pointing out questionable acts by the American government agencies and corporations. The current administration has responded to this practice by prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.

Most of what leakers share is barely heard by the public. For example, most people don’t know who Mark Klein is even though he publicly shared information that showed that his former employer – AT&T – was working with the NSA to analyze Americans’ phone calls in violation of citizens’ privacy.

The news coverage he got in 2006 was significant to advocates, but the public doesn’t know his name or even realize that Verizon wasn’t the first telecom to share extensively with the NSA.

That’s the state — and fate — of whistle-blowing, pre-Snowden. Persecuted, prosecuted, marginalized, under-discussed, and not very effective. She then talks about how Bradley Manning did manage to be relevant, but only because of Assange, which offers a mixed template for future whistle-blowers.

This brings her to Snowden:

Edward-Snowden-2Snowden has presented the public with a different case study. … As this drama has played out, Snowden has become a walking diplomatic incident.

Even though he has been disciplined and thoughtful in what he has shared, revealing little more than advocacy organizations have suspected or known for a long time and sharing vague documents that don’t fully make sense, every ounce of American political might has been operationalized to go after him as a serious threat, piquing curiosity about what else he knows and what he might do.

Most likely, had he just revealed what he revealed and then disappeared, it would’ve been a news story for a week and then been quickly forgotten. But because the focus is on him, aspects of what he’s tried to argue keep dripping through the salacious coverage of his whereabouts.

In other words, this story will stay alive for as long (perhaps) as Snowden does. He’s not responsible for the media sideshow, but for his part, he’s played of his own cards, many of them, rather well, and he’s also managed to deal himself a pretty decent hand. His huge cache of stolen documents, trip-wired to explode into public view should he disappear, is both good life insurance and an intriguing stash of secrets for the public to ponder.

One more piece from the analysis, and then I’ll send you to read the rest:

More importantly though, as Nadia pointed out to me, [Snowden]’s creating a template for how to share information. He’s clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he’s also forged his own path which has had its own follies.

Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he’s inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power. And this is terrifying for any government.

I’ll go back to a word I used above, as perhaps the most important word in this piece — “effective”.

What terrifies any government, especially one as authoritarian and controlling as our own many-headed State is becoming, is an effective opposition. Snowden is being effective. I’m willing to bet, with all of the potential whistle-blowers in this authoritarian controlling world, others like him are just as frustrated, and watching as he points the way. Stay seriously tuned.

The Anti-State Movement is arriving; be hopeful

Any new movement is many-headed as well; it has many fathers and mothers, and many ways to work. Count on it — we’re seeing the birth and early childhood of the next child of the 60s Movement, which had its own many strands.

How can you not say that Occupy, Manning and Snowden are not part of the same resistance to the same monster? How can you not say that the chained-to-the-fence bodies of the next anti-Keystone demonstrations — we’ll have a summerful of them, I promise — is another.

Two take-aways for you. First, be optimistic. Not blind; but act with the thought that we could win, because, hey, we actually could.

Second, there are a hundred pressure points to the authoritarian State we’re growing. No one knows which one will give way, collapsing a portion of the wall that defends it. Who knew that organizing for 1960s civil rights on the Berkeley campus of the University of California would evolved into the one of the big early cracks in the big pro-war anti-progressive wall. As Mario Savio, of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, said:

“One thousand people sitting down can stop any machine, including this machine.”

The movement is building; not getting smaller. If you wanted a resistance, it’s coming.

À la résistance,


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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