Pushing back the surveillance machine

The state has always held information about citizens. The power of the state to track its citizens, and its disciplining and discourses of obedience, are well understood historically. What Snowden did was reveal the panspectronism that marks state power today – a shift from the panopticon gaze under which some were surveyed to an always-everywhere-everybody surveillance. But Snowden also pointed loud and clear to network power – the complicity of tech companies in the grand alliance of rich countries and their corporations – for the NSA’s ruthlessly clear plan to dramatically increase mastery of the global network The fact is that centralisation of power in the network society is unprecedented. We are witness to relationships of convenience in the global arena that reveal the shifting contours of power – some that we have the tools to recognise with our historical-social memory and some that we can’t recognise nor name. The informational state we are able to see as the product of new anxieties. But the power of the corporation in the network age is less evident to our epistemic sensibilities. Research by a Swiss-based think tank has shown how about 150 companies control the world, and they own interlocking stakes of one another!

Corporate surveillance may seem benign. It may even be reduced to an irritant – too many calls from those who believe I can buy, to those silly ads that I must see. The extraordinary intrusion into our lives by companies that seek to watch and second guess our lives is, as William Davies who wrote the Happiness Industry says, a device of control. It is about power that is diffuse, invisible even if ever- present, and frighteningly friendly. Davies talks about how the intent of such surveillance is to release “contagions” – ideas, to infect and thus expand control over the network. It is an elephant in the room. The crisis is here but it seems that another Snowden moment is unlikely. Even though the limits of advanced capitalism were more than clear with the financial crisis in the US, and the insolence of the 1% has been called out, we seem to be somewhat condemned to live life as self-obsessed narcissistic objects of commodified desire that network power conjures up. Data control through corporate surveillance is the disciplining of society by powerful nations and their corporations or should I say, powerful corporations and their benefactor-governments.

Data is the most valuable resource, and the network-data complex – the powerful alliances controlling the world today – has access to the most microcosmic of social realities, enlisting as it does the willing subsumption of all of us into the web of totalitarian capitalism. Monsanto is sitting on top of micro-level data on landholding in the US. It would be most reasonable to assume that the future of land-use in the US will be tied closely to the whims of Monsanto and its social engineering of agriculture.

Many of us come from a tradition of media and communication activism where even ten years ago, media freedom meant saying no to regulation. Our fights vis-a-vis the panspectron follow from our instinct to push back against state excess and impunity. But the writing on the wall – about corporate surveillance – is about our sociality under siege. Everything we do, adds to economic power. We are – as data in the network – part of the new economic structure, anxious participants. We are no doubt resisting and subverting power, but still unable to seek and articulate the political-institutional forms of democratic global arrangements that can counter network hegemony. We are unable to admit that governance of the internet requires us to understand the economics of the network-data complex.

That eureka moment on corporate surveillance is not going to come. We need to get out of the current impasse and strategise what we need to do through our resistance politics. Last year, when developing countries asked for and moved a resolution on a binding treaty on business and human rights in the HR Council, developed nations voted against it. Sadly, even key civil society groups in the Internet Governance arena wrote against this move to seek a treaty or remained silent and neutral. This is classical political economy and feminist activism and theory need to seek recourse in democratic governance frameworks. The fight is not simple, but its parameters are.