Technology × Freedom

The (Real) Antidote to Authoritarianism: An Open Response to Malkia Cyril

May 12, 2017 invisiblehand

Dear Ms. Cyril,

In the introduction to your recent article in The Atlantic, "The Antidote to Authoritarianism", you attempt to link the oppression of your ancestors in slavery-era America with the oppression faced by black communities today under the modern-day surveillance state. In your words,

the slave passes, branding, and lantern laws of then have become the cellphone trackers, facial recognition software, and body-worn police cameras of now. Their mission, however, hasn’t changed much — to catch and control black dissidence — only now they’re doing so in a digital age.

But in your passion for racial justice, you overlook a key difference between the slavery of yesteryear and the digital oppression of our modern age. Slavery was always antithetical to our American values. The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," among these being "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." So slaveowners were violating the existing law of the land, not to mention the universal natural law. The private ownership of broadband, and the control that private owners have over the access of that broadband, violates none of your unalienable rights. And to invite comparison between the enslavement and sometimes brutal treatment of human beings and a lack of access to content-neutral broadband services not only overstates the latter, but also trivializes the former.

But setting that quibble aside, who is the "they" that you're talking about? You say "their" mission is to control black dissidence. Whose mission is it? Why, it's the federal government's. The picture that graces your article is of federal law enforcement officers in riot gear. Who kept tabs on your mother and other members of the Black Panther Party back in the 1960s? You name them yourself: the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Who developed the surveillance technologies that target black communities? Federal agencies like the CIA and NSA, of course. And who but federal judges are the ones appointed to rule in cases of blue-on-black crime? Despite this, you call on none other than the federal government to protect you from the federal government!

I have another quibble. You write: "It is because people like Congressman [John] Lewis fought for an open internet that my voice can reach you today." You then remark: "It is to an open internet that our mobile phones upload evidence of police violence, previously unseen." But as you yourself point out, the FCC's Title II Net Neutrality rules were passed in 2015. The aforementioned picture of police in riot gear in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown is dated November 2014. The chokehold death of Eric Garner happened a few months prior. The shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent online media coverage occured in 2012. A Buzzfeed article published in May 2015, around the same time the Net Neutrality rules were released, lists all the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers that received media coverage up to that point. In all of these cases, first-hand video was uploaded and disseminated across the internet prior to the net neutrality order. And to suggest that your present article would be censored were it not for net neturality rules is, frankly, absurd. You yourself have a long history of publishing articles online prior to the net neutrality rules, including articles about fighting for an open internet. I wonder, did AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast ever try to soft-censor your writings through artificial throttling?

When governments regulate the internet (such as in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba), censorship thrives. When governments privatize the internet (such as in Denmark), internet acccess increases and free speech is preserved. It's that simple.

But if you disagree with all of this, at least let me persuade you on this one point: dignity is not something that can be given or taken away, but rather it is something we make for ourselves. To put it differently, dignity does not depend on how others treat us. It depends on how we react. When you write that the internet is where people "demand dignity," you're outsourcing your own dignity to the government. That is not the antidote to authoritarianism. That is its chief enabler.

If you really want to fight authoritarianism and the growing surveillance state, I urge you to align the Center for Media Justice with individuals all over the country from a variety of political viewpoints who are also concerned about the overreach of local and federal law enforcement and intelligence. We believe the real antidote to this overreach and suppression of civil liberties is not in net neutrality or more government oversight, but in fact the opposite: more freedom and decentralization of power. Instead of an open internet, help support, grow, and sustain a decentralized internet.