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Technocratic Fascism, Tech Elitism and the Development of the Tor Network

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Edward Snowden, unplugged

Julian Assange and Joran Jermas aka "Israel Shamir," his Holocaust-denier associate

COMMENT: “Pterrafractyl” has presented us with a very important piece about technocracy and the development of the Tor network. Of far greater importance than the develoment of the network itself is the viewpoint expressed by what, for lack of a better term, might be called technocratic fascists. We present “Pterra’s” comments before excerpting and presenting the bulk of the article.

David Golum­bia recently wrote a fab­u­lous piece about the tech­no­cratic nature of the ideals behind the Tor Project and the vari­ety of fun­da­men­tally unde­mo­c­ra­tic, polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tions that are used to jus­tify its devel­op­ment, includ­ing the invo­ca­tion of nat­ural law argu­ments by Tor’s lead devel­oper, Roger Din­gle­dine. Given Edward Snowden’s pro­mo­tion of Libertarian/Cypherpunk ideals as a global pro-human rights/pro-democracy ral­ly­ing cry, and the inevitable growth of tech­no­cratic temp­ta­tions as tech­no­log­i­cal advances con­tinue, it’s crit­i­cal read­ing.

What might be described as the thesis statement of this very important piece reads: “Such tech­no­cratic beliefs are wide­spread in our world today, espe­cially in the enclaves of dig­i­tal enthu­si­asts, whether or not they are part of the giant corporate-digital leviathanHack­ers (“civic,” “eth­i­cal,” “white” and “black” hat alike), hack­tivists, Wik­iLeaks fans, Anony­mous “mem­bers,” even Edward Snow­den him­self walk hand-in-hand with Face­book and Google in telling us that coders don’t just have good things to con­tribute to the polit­i­cal world, but that the polit­i­cal world is theirs to do with what they want, and the rest of us should stay out of it: the polit­i­cal world is bro­ken, they appear to think (rightly, at least in part), and the solu­tion to that, they think (wrongly, at least for the most part), is for pro­gram­mers to take polit­i­cal mat­ters into their own hands. . . .”

Obviously, they are not concerned with democratic political ideals in any size, shape, form or manner. The underlying despair inherent in such views reminds us of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West–a text that was fundamental to the development of fascist ideology. (We discuss the Spengler text is our interviews with Kevin Coogan.) The Spengler text was a major influence on Francis Parker Yockey, among others.

“Tor, Tech­noc­racy, Democracy” by David Golum­bia; Uncomputing.org; 4/23/2015.

As impor­tant as the tech­ni­cal issues regard­ing Tor are, at least as important—probably more important—is the polit­i­cal world­view that Tor pro­motes (as do other projects like it). While it is use­ful and rel­e­vant to talk about for­ma­tions that cap­ture large parts of the Tor com­mu­nity, like “geek cul­ture” and “cypher­punks” and lib­er­tar­i­an­ism and anar­chism, one of the most salient polit­i­cal frames in which to see Tor is also one that is almost uni­ver­sally applic­a­ble across these com­mu­ni­ties: Tor is tech­no­cratic. Tech­noc­racy is a term used by polit­i­cal sci­en­tists and tech­nol­ogy schol­ars to describe the view that polit­i­cal prob­lems have tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions, and that those tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions con­sti­tute a kind of pol­i­tics that tran­scends what are wrongly char­ac­ter­ized as “tra­di­tional” left-right politics.

In a ter­rific recent arti­cle describ­ing tech­noc­racy and its preva­lence in con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal cul­ture, the philoso­phers of tech­nol­ogy Evan Selinger and Jathan Sad­owski write:

Unlike force wield­ing, iron-fisted dic­ta­tors, tech­nocrats derive their author­ity from a seem­ingly softer form of power: sci­en­tific and engi­neer­ing pres­tige. No mat­ter where tech­nocrats are found, they attempt to legit­imize their hold over oth­ers by offer­ing inno­v­a­tive pro­pos­als untainted by trou­bling sub­jec­tive biases and inter­ests. Through rhetor­i­cal appeals to opti­miza­tion and objec­tiv­ity, tech­nocrats depict their favored approaches to social con­trol as prag­matic alter­na­tives to grossly inef­fi­cient polit­i­cal mech­a­nisms. Indeed, tech­nocrats reg­u­larly con­ceive of their inter­ven­tions in duty-bound terms, as a respon­si­bil­ity to help cit­i­zens and soci­ety over­come vast polit­i­cal frictions.

Such tech­no­cratic beliefs are wide­spread in our world today, espe­cially in the enclaves of dig­i­tal enthu­si­asts, whether or not they are part of the giant corporate-digital leviathan. Hack­ers (“civic,” “eth­i­cal,” “white” and “black” hat alike), hack­tivists, Wik­iLeaks fans, Anony­mous “mem­bers,” even Edward Snow­den him­self walk hand-in-hand with Face­book and Google in telling us that coders don’t just have good things to con­tribute to the polit­i­cal world, but that the polit­i­cal world is theirs to do with what they want, and the rest of us should stay out of it: the polit­i­cal world is bro­ken, they appear to think (rightly, at least in part), and the solu­tion to that, they think (wrongly, at least for the most part), is for pro­gram­mers to take polit­i­cal mat­ters into their own hands.

While these sug­ges­tions typ­i­cally frame them­selves in terms of the words we use to describe core polit­i­cal values—most often, val­ues asso­ci­ated with democracy—they actu­ally offer very lit­tle dis­cus­sion ade­quate to the rich tra­di­tions of polit­i­cal thought that artic­u­lated those val­ues to begin with. That is, tech­no­cratic power under­stands tech­nol­ogy as an area of pre­cise exper­tise, in which one must demon­strate a sig­nif­i­cant level of knowl­edge and skill as a pre­req­ui­site even to con­tribut­ing to the project at all. Yet tech­nocrats typ­i­cally tol­er­ate no such char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of law or pol­i­tics: these are triv­ial mat­ters not even up for debate, and in so far as they are up for debate, they are mat­ters for which the same tech­ni­cal skills qual­ify par­tic­i­pants. This is why it is no sur­prise that amount the 30 or 40 indi­vid­u­als listed by the project as “Core Tor Peo­ple,”the vast major­ity are devel­op­ers or tech­nol­ogy researchers, and those few for whom pol­i­tics is even part of their ambit, approach it almost exclu­sively as tech­nol­o­gists. The actual legal spe­cial­ists, no more than a hand­ful, tend to be ded­i­cated advo­cates for the par­tic­u­lar view of soci­ety Tor prop­a­gates. In other words, there is very lit­tle room in Tor for dis­cus­sion of its pol­i­tics, for whether the project actu­ally does embody widely-shared polit­i­cal val­ues: this is taken as given.

This would be fine if Tor really were “purely” technological—although just what a “purely” tech­no­log­i­cal project might be is by no means clear in our world—but Tor is, by anyone’s account, deeply polit­i­cal, so much so that the devel­op­ers them­selves must turn to polit­i­cal prin­ci­ples to explain why the project exists at all. Con­sider, for exam­ple, the Tor Project blog postwrit­ten by lead devel­oper Roger Din­gle­dine that describes the “pos­si­ble upcom­ing attempts to dis­able the Tor net­work” dis­cussed by Yasha Levine and Paul Carron Pando. Din­gle­dine writes:

The Tor net­work pro­vides a safe haven from sur­veil­lance, cen­sor­ship, and com­puter net­work exploita­tion for mil­lions of peo­ple who live in repres­sive regimes, includ­ing human rights activists in coun­tries such as Iran, Syria, and Rus­sia.

And fur­ther:

Attempts to dis­able the Tor net­work would inter­fere with all of these users, not just ones dis­liked by the attacker.

Why would that be bad? Because “every per­son has the right to pri­vacy. This right is a foun­da­tion of a demo­c­ra­tic society.”

This appears to be an extremely clear state­ment. It is not a tech­no­log­i­cal argu­ment: it is a polit­i­cal argu­ment. It was gen­er­ated by Din­gle­dine of his own voli­tion; it is meant to be a—possibly the—basic argu­ment that that jus­ti­fies Tor. Tor is con­nected to a fun­da­men­tal human right, the “right to pri­vacy” which is a “foun­da­tion” of a “demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety.” Din­gle­dine is cer­tainly right that we should not do things that threaten such demo­c­ra­tic foun­da­tions. At the same time, Din­gle­dine seems not to rec­og­nize that terms like “repres­sive regime” are inher­ently and deeply polit­i­cal, and that “sur­veil­lance” and “cen­sor­ship” and “exploita­tion” name polit­i­cal activ­i­ties whose def­i­n­i­tions vary accord­ing to legal regime and even polit­i­cal point of view. Clearly, many users of Tor con­sider any obser­va­tion by any gov­ern­ment, for any rea­son, to be “exploita­tion” by a “repres­sive regime,” which is con­sis­tent for the many mem­bers of the com­mu­nity who pro­fess a vari­ety of anar­chism or anarcho-capitalism, but not for those with other polit­i­cal views, such as those who think that there are cir­cum­stances under which laws need to be enforced.

Espe­cially con­cern­ing about this argu­ment is that it mis­char­ac­ter­izes the nature of the legal guar­an­tees of human rights. In a democ­racy, it is not actu­ally up to indi­vid­u­als on their own to decide how and where human rights should be enforced or pro­tected, and then to cre­ate autonomous zones wherein those rights are pro­tected in the terms they see fit. Instead, in a democ­racy, cit­i­zens work together to have laws and reg­u­la­tions enacted that real­ize their inter­pre­ta­tion of rights. Agi­tat­ing for a “right to pri­vacy” amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion would be appro­pri­ate polit­i­cal action for pri­vacy in a democ­racy. Even cer­tain forms of (lim­ited) civil dis­obe­di­ence are an impor­tant part of democ­racy. But cre­at­ing a tool that you claim pro­tects pri­vacy accord­ing to your own def­i­n­i­tion of the term, overtly resist­ing any attempt to dis­cuss what it means to say that it “pro­tects pri­vacy,” and then insist­ing every­one use it and nobody, espe­cially those lack­ing the cod­ing skills to be insid­ers, com­plain about it because of its con­nec­tion to fun­da­men­tal rights, is pro­foundly anti­de­mo­c­ra­tic. Like all tech­no­cratic claims, it chal­lenges what actu­ally is a fun­da­men­tal pre­cept of democ­racy that few across the polit­i­cal spec­trum would chal­lenge: that open dis­cus­sion of every issue affect­ing us is required in order for polit­i­cal power to be prop­erly administered.

It doesn’t take much to show that Dingledine’s state­ment about the polit­i­cal foun­da­tions of Tor can’t bear the weight he places on it. I com­mented on the Tor Project blog, point­ing out that he is using “right to pri­vacy” in a dif­fer­ent way from what that term means out­side of the con­text of Tor: “the ‘right to pri­vacy’ does not mean what you assert it means here, at all, even in those juris­dic­tions that (unlike the US) have that right enshrined in law or con­sti­tu­tion.” Din­gle­dine responded:

Live in the world you want to live in. (Think of it as a corol­lary to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.)

We’re not talk­ing about any par­tic­u­lar legal regime here. We’re talk­ing about basic human rights that humans world­wide have, regard­less of par­tic­u­lar laws or inter­pre­ta­tions of laws.

I guess other peo­ple can say that it isn’t true — that pri­vacy isn’t a uni­ver­sal human right — but we’re going to keep say­ing that it is.

This is tech­no­cratic two-stepping of a very typ­i­cal sort and deeply wor­ry­ing sort. First, Din­gle­dine claimed that Tor must be sup­ported because it fol­lows directly from a fun­da­men­tal “right to pri­vacy.” Yet when pressed—and not that hard—he admits that what he means by “right to pri­vacy” is not what any human rights body or “par­tic­u­lar legal regime” has meant by it. Instead of talk­ing about how human rights are pro­tected, he asserts that human rights are nat­ural rights and that these nat­ural rights cre­ate nat­ural law that is prop­erly enforced by enti­ties above and out­side of demo­c­ra­tic poli­ties. Where the UN’s Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion on Human Rightsof 1948 is very clear that states and bod­ies like the UN to which states belong are the exclu­sive guar­an­tors of human rights, what­ever the ori­gin of those rights, Din­gle­dine asserts that a small group of soft­ware devel­op­ers can assign to them­selves that role, and that mem­bers of demo­c­ra­tic poli­ties have no choice but to accept them hav­ing that role.

We don’t have to look very hard to see the prob­lems with that. Many in the US would assert that the right to bear arms means that indi­vid­u­als can own guns (or even more pow­er­ful weapons). More than a few con­strue this as a human or even a nat­ural right. Many would say “the citizen’s right to bear arms is a foun­da­tion of a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety.” Yet many would not. Another democ­racy, the UK, does not allow cit­i­zens to bear arms. Tor, notably, is the home of many hid­den ser­vices that sell weapons. Is it for the Tor devel­op­ers to decide what is and what is not a fun­da­men­tal human right, and how states should rec­og­nize them, and to dis­trib­ute weapons in the UK despite its explicit, democratically-enacted, legal pro­hi­bi­tion of them? (At this point, it is only the exis­tence of legal ser­vices beyond Tor’s con­trol that make this dif­fi­cult, but that has lit­tle to do with Tor’s oper­a­tion: if it were up to Tor, the UK legal pro­hi­bi­tion on weapons would be over­writ­ten by tech­no­cratic fiat.)

We should note as well that once we ven­ture into the ter­rain of nat­ural rights and nat­ural law, we are deep in the thick of pol­i­tics. It sim­ply is not the case that all polit­i­cal thinkers, let alone all cit­i­zens, are going to agree about the ori­gin of rights, and even fewer would agree that nat­ural rights lead to a nat­ural law that tran­scends the power of pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty to pro­tect. Dingledine’s appeal to nat­ural law is not polit­i­cally neu­tral: it takes a side in a cen­tral, ages-old debate about the ori­gin of rights, the nature of the bod­ies that guar­an­tee them.

That’s fine, except when we remem­ber that we are asked to endorse Tor pre­cisely because it instances a pol­i­tics so fun­da­men­tal that every­one, or vir­tu­ally every­one, would agree with it. Oth­er­wise, Tor is a polit­i­cal ani­mal, and the pub­lic should accede to its devel­op­ment no more than it does to any other pro­posed inno­va­tion or law: it must be sub­ject to exactly the same tests every­thing else is. Yet this is exactly what Tor claims it is above, in many dif­fer­ent ways.

Fur­ther, it is hard not to notice that the appeal to nat­ural rights is today most often asso­ci­ated with the polit­i­cal right, for a vari­ety of rea­sons (ur-neocon Leo Strauss was one of the most promi­nent 20th cen­tury pro­po­nents of these views). We aren’t sup­posed to endorse Tor because we endorse the right: it’s sup­posed to be above the left/right dis­tinc­tion. But it isn’t.

Tor, like all other tech­no­cratic solu­tions (or solu­tion­ist tech­nolo­gies) is pro­foundly polit­i­cal. Rather than claim­ing it is above them, it should invite vig­or­ous polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of its func­tions and pur­pose (as at least the Tor Project’s out­go­ing Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Andrew Lew­man, has recently stated, though there have yet to be many signs that the Tor com­mu­nity, let alone the core group of “Tor Peo­ple,” agrees with this). Rather than a staff com­posed entirely of tech­nol­o­gists, any project with the poten­tial to inter­cede so directly in so many vital areas of human con­duct should be staffed by at least as many with polit­i­cal and legal exper­tise as it is by tech­nol­o­gists. It should be able to artic­u­late its ben­e­fits and draw­backs fully in the oper­a­tional polit­i­cal lan­guage of the coun­tries in which it oper­ates. It should be able to acknowl­edge that an actual foun­da­tion of demo­c­ra­tic poli­ties is the need to make accom­mo­da­tions and com­pro­mises between peo­ple whose polit­i­cal con­vic­tions will dif­fer. It needs to make clear that it is a polit­i­cal project, and that like all polit­i­cal projects, it exists sub­ject to the will of the cit­i­zenry, to whom it reports, and which can decide whether or not the project should con­tinue. Oth­er­wise, it dis­par­ages the very demo­c­ra­tic ground on which many of its pro­mot­ers claim to operate.


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