by Mara MacSeoinin, United Kingdom
The Internet is often called the last bastion of free speech, a bulwark against an encroaching state which seeks to know everything, see everything and hear everything its citizens are thinking, doing and saying. Any entity which allows a private citizen to remain private is abhorrent to the Labour Government. Over the past twelve years, as the state has gradually expanded, so has the internet has become more and more radical, growing exponentially; like a human mind it has become privy to infinite thoughts, desires, theories, hypotheses, fantasies, dark traumas, unimaginable cruelties and admirable achievements.
The ultimate polyester dominatrix, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, has launched a series of endeavours to control the internet through recording details of the websites people visit, the calls they make, the origin and destination of their instant messages and of their emails. The Interception Modernisation Programme, part of the Communications Data Bill proposed to create a gigantic database, the likes of which the world has never seen before, to record a truly staggering quantity of information which could then be mined by the intelligence services to root out prospective terrorists. There has been a vocal and highly colourful response from individuals rightly opposed to this further incursion into their ability to communicate freely and privately; moreover, the Joseph Rowntree Report into the database state has highlighted most embarrassingly for Smith et al that such initiatives as the mammoth Orwellian communications database planned are illegal. There being little point in spending public money to create a database which is going to be shut down anyway, Smith announced, much to the ‘relief’ of privacy campaigners, that the project had been abandoned: “the government recognised the privacy implications of the move [and] therefore does not propose to pursue this move,” she said.
Until someone stumbled on a job advertisement in a trade rag, that is, and unwittingly uncovered Smith’s latest beastie: the Mastering the Internet (MTI) programme which, run through GCHQ (the UK government’s curtain-twitching and eavesdropping spy service), is going to put the onus on service providers to install and maintain a series of black boxes to record all the information mentioned above: phone calls, emails, IMs, browser history. In a rare display of publicity GCHQ made the following claim:
“GCHQ is not developing technology to enable the monitoring of all internet use and phone calls in Britain, or to target everyone in the UK… Similarly, GCHQ has no ambitions, expectations or plans for a database or databases to store centrally all communications data in Britain.” (Daily Telegraph, Government Not Planning To Monitor Web Use, Tuesday 12 May 2009)
Though GCHQ is high-mindedly abnegating all responsibility, all they have done is pass the buck: they are not developing interception technology, because that contract has already been handed over to US Administration favourite, Lockheed Martin, and our own home-grown IT company with close ties to the intelligence services, Detica. Lockheed Martin has already been paid £200 million pounds to develop the black box technology which, as GCHQ rightly say, won’t be centralised; it’ll be spread around all UK internet suppliers. The total cost of the project is estimated at around £1 billion pounds: peanuts in comparison to bank bailouts, but rather steep when you consider that the taxpayer is paying for its government to snoop on it.
The usual howls of ‘ButImeantosaywhat?’ have floated up from civil liberties campaigners and Concerned Citizens alike. “We opposed the big brother database because it gave the state direct access to everybody’s communications. But this network of black boxes achieves the same thing via the back door,” asserted Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. Snooping on this kind of scale is evocative of Hitler’s Germany: each and everyone is scrutinised just in case, just because. Rather than having to seek individual permissions for spying on suspect individuals from ministers, the information of what every single citizen has been up to will be ready for the picking. And, although GCHQ have claimed they are not setting up a central database, they will need a network of super-computers to access all the information constantly whizzing through cyberspace, and a specialist IT head of contracts, paid a cool £100,000 p.a., to run it. The surveillance state is nearing completion.
Ministers have ‘got away’ with yet another incursion into our lives by saying that they don’t want to know what we’ve said, just to whom we’ve said it. But this really isn’t the point, and it’s not the answer to the question we’re asking. What we’d like to know is ‘how can *they* get away with this?’ As George Steiner noted, two centuries after Voltaire had proclaimed its end, torture had become an everyday part of the political landscape; out of the springs of poetry and transcendental philosophy the greatest cruelties, the most exceptional meanness of spirit, has arisen. Nor can we take refuge in the calm empiricism of science; it, too, has been abused by those yearning for power.
The reason that *they* can get away with this is because they have made our language meaningless. Humans are not humans. They’re referred to as ‘units’ or ‘averages’ or ‘aggregates’. Their private information is no longer comprised of illuminating facts about the individual: it’s ‘Data’, the province of the clinical statistician or economist seeking to prove a hypothesis rather than deal with something living and breathing. If someone is a mere ‘unit’ he has no past; he has no ‘he’. If he has no personhood, he has no hope. Without hope, he is mute. If there is no longer any language left for him, he cannot engage with politics, because there cannot be any reflection on politics that does not pass through language; politics is not a realm of silence. Mastering the Internet becomes ‘mastering the people’; the people mastered become subjects; and then they become nothing at all.
In his famous work, Lingua Tertia Primii, Victor Klemperer analysed the effect that the Nazis had upon language:
“…The most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions.
Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. . . language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.
And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.
The Third Reich coined only a very small number of the words in its language, perhaps – indeed probably – none at all. . . But it changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence, it makes common property out of what was previously the preserve of an individual or a tiny group, it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures with its poison.” (LTI, trans. Martin Brady, pp. 15-16