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

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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.



One comment for “Technocratic Fascism, Tech Elitism and the Development of the Tor Network”

  1. And this is a CIA com­put­er engi­neer mind you, using TOR for child porn....among oth­er exploits

    Sus­pect Iden­ti­fied in C.I.A. Leak Was Charged, but Not for the Breach


    In court in Jan­u­ary, a pros­e­cu­tor, the assis­tant Unit­ed States attor­ney Matthew J. Laroche, said that “the gov­ern­ment imme­di­ate­ly had enough evi­dence” to make Mr. Schulte a tar­get of the inves­ti­ga­tion. He said that the inves­ti­ga­tion was con­tin­u­ing, and that it involved in part how Tor, soft­ware that allows anony­mous com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the inter­net, “was used in trans­mit­ting clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion.”

    Posted by participo | May 16, 2018, 9:42 am

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