Our privacy champion

Opinion by Raven Jiang
Sept. 29, 2014, 10:17 a.m.

Two weeks ago, a peculiar event took place in the Auckland Town Hall and was streamed live to the world. After a short introduction in Maori, Laila Harré, leader of the Internet Party in New Zealand, proclaimed, “We are here to celebrate and protect our democracy.” As she introduced one of the guests, Glenn Greenwald, the American former-Guardian journalist famous for his role in the Snowden leaks, a joyous German man sitting next to Greenwald cheered with a little too much enthusiasm. Some time later, a haggard Julian Assange and a smartly-dressed Edward Snowden joined the conversation over video feeds from their respective hiding places in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and an undisclosed location in Moscow. Hanging in front of the panelists were the words “The Moment of Truth.”

The information age has brought us not just transnational corporations, but transnational political activism. Straight out of the pages of cyberpunk, we see the digital globalist worldview struggling to break out of online forums like Reddit and into the real world. It is a new-age ideology that has managed to convert true believers all over the English-speaking world across nationalist divides.

That is how we find an American journalist, an Australian hacker, a former NSA operator and a German businessman coming together to influence the outcome of the New Zealand general election armed with leaked NSA documents revealing that the law passed last year by the present government allowed for the mass surveillance of the country’s citizens, despite personal guarantee from Prime Minister John Key that that would not be the case. The panelists, particularly Greenwald, presented a convincing argument.

Defending privacy is certainly the most important role of this new international cyberlibertarian movement. The problem and the debate over the trade-offs between freedom and security exist on a global scale that can only be tackled properly by a global movement. While nations are still the creator and executor of laws, transnational exchanges of ideas are crucial to defining our ethical norms. Therefore, it is a wonderful thing that events such as this one are helping to shape a transnational consensus on the role of digital surveillance in the world. While Snowden might have broken American laws, his action clearly served a good that is recognized by a significant portion of the world.

However, not everything is well with the movement. As with every revolution marching against the establishments, opportunists abound.

Kim Dotcom, the eccentric and wealthy German businessman who sponsored the event and funded the Internet Party to the tune of millions, did not belong with the other panelists. In his early days, he made money off shady stock schemes and eventually moved to Asia to escape German prosecution. His wealth and fame came from his founding of Megaupload, a file-sharing site that encouraged piracy by paying users who upload popular files, while in Hong Kong. Even someone sympathetic to copyright reform would find it difficult to defend Dotcom’s actions as anything more than opportunistic greed. He speaks the language of the revolution to peddle his wares.

In the cause against digital surveillance, Dotcom has found his latest enterprise. He portrays himself as the victim of tyrannical governments and his wealth buys him into the company of individuals with more sincere causes. After Greenwald made an eloquent and convincing argument condemning the New Zealand government, Dotcom found the panel an appropriate venue to shamelessly promote his latest commercial venture – a secured video conferencing tool. A watermark logo for his latest company MEGA can be seen on the video streams of both Snowden and Assange. The incongruity is made only more painfully obvious when the other panelists tried their best to include Dotcom in their discussions.

It is no surprise that the Internet Party received only slightly more than one percent of the vote in the elections and failed to earn representation in parliament. The biggest reason for the failure given by the post mortem was the visibility of Kim Dotcom. His presence not only gave the establishment a target to vilify, it also rightfully turned away moderate voters who doubted his character. The lesson here is that if digital reformers want to win political battles, they need to pick better bedfellows. It is difficult for a movement that claims to fight for transparency and individual rights to earn the respect it needs to effect true change if it continues to allow opportunistic talkers to be at its public face.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Raven Jiang '15 is a senior majoring in Computer Science. He grew up in Singapore and continues to use metric units. Having grown up with Asimov and Clarke, he lives in the future more than he does the present. You can contact Raven at [email protected].

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