By Alistair Davidson
Despite blanket media coverage of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, there has been little discussion of the fact that Assange is merely one leader within a large and complicated social movement. The better analyses have found it interesting that the Swedish Pirate Party are aiding Wikileaks; some note links to the German Chaos Computer Club. But only “geeks” and “hackers” (technology workers) are aware that all of these organisations are members of the same movement.
This social movement, which has been termed the “free culture movement”, has a thirty year history. It incorporates elements reminiscent of earlier workers’ movements: elements of class struggle, political agitation, and radical economics. The movement’s cadre, mainly technology workers, have been locked in conflict with the ruling class over the political and economic nature of information itself. As Wikileaks demonstrates, the outcome will have implications for all of us.The free culture movement exists as a consequence of the internet’s political economy. Personal computers have radically transformed the economic nature of information. Before the 1970s, a given piece of information was tied to a physical object – a piece of paper, an LP, a roll of film. Entire industries were built on selling paper, LP’s and rolls of film with particular bits of information on them. Then the personal computer arrived and suddenly information of all kinds could be duplicated infinitely at minimal cost – and distributed by the internet to a global audience. Every human could have a copy of every piece of art ever created for the cost of a broadband connection.
In the terms of capitalist economics, every good has a marginal cost, which is the cost of producing one more item. Computers reduce the marginal cost of information to zero, and the internet makes distribution, legal or otherwise, trivial. Information has become “non-excludable” (copying cannot be prevented) and “non-rivalrous” (if I give you information, I keep my copy of that information). In this situation, it is almost impossible to treat information as a commodity – as capitalist economics would have it, information is a public good, like roads or national defense.
As a result, there is a contradiction within capitalism. The most obvious source of profit, the very reason for a capitalist society to invest in information technology, is to extract value by selling information as a commodity. Meanwhile information technology has steadily undermined the practicality of treating information as property.
As computers have rendered “intellectual property rights” unenforceable, the remaining method of privatising information is secrecy. Information collection and secrecy is the business model of Google and Facebook – collecting and selling information about us to their advertisers. Information collection and secrecy are also the core functions of the modern security state. It is in this context that the immense social significance of Wikileaks’ actions becomes apparent: Wikileaks is a key part of the free culture movement’s assault on the bastions of privatised information.
The present situation was predicted by visionary hackers over thirty years ago, and they set out to ensure the victory of free culture over proprietary culture, open organisation over closed, and privacy over Big Brother.
The word hacker predates the personal computer, originating at the MIT Tech Model Rail Club in the 1950s. Amongst geeks, it is used to mean a technically skilled individual who is driven to learn and experiment, a person who believes in sharing what they’ve learned with the community.
Hacker culture proper originated in the 1970s, in hobbyist clubs dedicated to the first personal computers. Hackers quickly became used to copying software freely – after all, it cost nothing to share, and reading the software’s “source code” was educational. Software became the first modern information good: infinitely replicable, at no cost.
However, others were already seeking to change the nature of software, to turn it into a commodity. How else, they asked, could the creators afford to eat? In 1976, Bill Gates famously complained:
As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair? … Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? … The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software …but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.
This was an early appearance of the new contradiction in capitalism – a conflict between the path of greatest production (infinite copying) and the existing source of profits (artificial scarcity). Karl Marx argued that conflict between new and old modes of production is at the core of social change:
The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. … At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. –Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
As Marx might have predicted, Gates’ plea fell on deaf ears. By the mid 1980s, sharing software had never been easier and Internet Bulletin Boards were widespread. Hackers and others would make a computer-to-computer phone call to join discussions, and to download illegal copies of software. Hacker conferences and organisations emerged, including the left-wing Chaos Computer Club in Germany, and later the apolitical DefCon and “liberal” HOPE in the United States.
From its experiences of the new technology, this anarchic subculture developed a shared political and moral sense, now known as the Hacker Ethic:
- Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
- Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
- All information should be free.
The similarity of the ethic to older conceptions of an egalitarian society has been noted by the discussion group Project Oekonux:
The critique of market exchange and of money, the rejection of hierarchy and borders, the critique of contemporary work and the revindication of passion and freedom as primary motivations, of cooperation and of sharing as the foundations of new relations, all this is found, to a degree more or less elaborated and coherent, in the “hacker ethic.” Now these are elements that form part of the foundation of the communist project.
Some thinkers sought to move beyond an ethic and develop a political programme. The first and most important anti-propertarian theorist and organiser to emerge from the hacker world was Richard M Stallman. Stallman is a controversial figure, a geek’s geek and not always polite to his political opponents. In spite of his apparent interpersonal shortcomings, he is widely respected as the founder of the free culture movement, perhaps the first person to understand the new economic situation, and certainly the first person to do anything concrete about it.
Stallman was driven to action when he saw the nature of software begin to change – increasingly, companies kept secret the details necessary to modify their programs, and sued anyone who distributed copies. The first modern information good was becoming a commodity, against its economic nature and against the Hacker Ethic.
In response, Stallman created a new ideology, Free Software, declaring software-as-commodity to be a moral evil: Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits
(note that “free” here does not refer to the cost, as in “free beer”, but to freedom, as in “free speech” – the word has two meanings in English)
As information workers, Stallman and his peers owned their means of production and had access to the means of distribution – by the 1980s, all they needed to bypass capital entirely was a computer and a phone line. In 1984, Stallman began a public collaborative effort to build a complete set of software that respected the four freedoms, announcing it with the declaration:
I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. … So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.
He founded a political group, the Free Software Foundation, and in collaboration with the lawyer and free software leader Eben Moglen popularised another new concept – copyleft. A “copyleft” license is a special copyright license that brings legal enforcement to the four freedoms. It grants anyone the right to modify and share an information good, provided that any modifications are shared according to the same license. In other words, you may treat the work as communal property, as long as your own modifications also become communal property.
To hackers, avid readers of science fiction, it seemed obvious that in the near future all of humanity’s information would be stored on a global computer network. Stallman realised that if state or private interests controlled the software running the network, they could monitor or censor any information they wished – and decided that humanity as a whole must have the ability to share and modify all software. This idea was most fully developed by the lawyer Lawrence Lessig when he coined the phrase code is law.
In real space, we recognize how laws regulate – through constitutions, statutes, and other legal codes. In cyberspace we must understand how a different “code” regulates – how the software and hardware (i.e., the “code” of cyberspace) that make cyberspace what it is also regulate cyberspace as it is. As William Mitchell puts it, this code is cyberspace’s “law.” “Lex Informatica,” as Joel Reidenberg first put it, or better, “code is law.”
Cyberspace is regulated by software, much as the real world is regulated by law. It follows that if there is to be a free culture, then software must be free – otherwise, corporate and state interests have an unacceptable ability to collect and censor information.
These trends – the end of information scarcity, the distribution of the means of production into the hands of information workers, the development of a broader hacker community and ethic, the emergence of ideological leaders and organisations, and the creation of a legal theory – combined in the 1990s to produce an extremely rare economic event: the arrival of an entirely new mode of production. The first example of the new mode was the Linux project.
By the early 1990s, the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Project had assembled all the free software necessary to run a computer apart from one, known as the “kernel”. Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds created the free kernel “Linux” as a hobby project, licensing it under the FSF’s copyleft license. Linus’ hobby soon became the first large engineering project to be conducted entirely online, and it developed faster than anyone envisaged. Twenty years later, it has benefited from millions of contributions from many thousands of workers around the world.
Free software – built on GNU and Linux – is now ubiquitous on internet servers, and recently began leading the market in smartphones (thanks to Google’s Android). The GNU/Linux ecosystem is a completely unique phenomenon – an engineering and artistic project of immense scope conducted across thirty years using a global workforce, with most of the work coming from volunteers simply because they enjoyed contributing.
Eric S Raymond, in his seminal essay the Cathedral and the Bazaar, made an early attempt to explain what was going on:
Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993 – 1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible. While cheap Internet was a necessary condition for the Linux model to evolve, I think it was not by itself a sufficient condition. Another vital factor was the development of a leadership style and set of cooperative customs that could allow developers to attract co-developers and get maximum leverage out of the medium. But what is this leadership style and what are these customs? They cannot be based on power relationships – and even if they could be, leadership by coercion would not produce the results we see.
Information workers were cooperating globally and without coercion to produce property that was to be communally owned. Non-coercive productive relations were inevitable given the underlying economic truth – a computer, internet access, and communally-owned free software are all the productive capital a computer programmer needs. The cooperative, ad-hoc and voluntary nature of GNU/Linux development is exactly the behaviour Marx predicted would emerge from free access to productive capital:
Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor. The phrase “proceeds of labor”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning. … labor [will] become not only a means of life but life’s prime want — Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme
Always confining themselves to information property alone, because of its non-scarce nature, the philosophers of the free software movement started to sound like libertarian communists – even though many in the community would not subscribe to leftist politics. FSF Lawyer Eben Moglen made the case forcefully in his essay Anarchism Triumphant:
At the center of the digital revolution, with the executable bitstreams that make everything else possible, propertarian regimes not only do not make things better, they can make things radically worse. Property concepts, whatever else may be wrong with them, do not enable and have in fact retarded progress. In the network society, anarchism (or more properly, anti-possessive individualism) is a viable political philosophy … because defection is impossible, free riders are welcome, which resolves one of the central puzzles of collective action in a propertarian social system.
Some hackers were unhappy with these ideological developments. On the grounds that business was perturbed by the FSF’s rhetoric, Eric S Raymond formed the breakaway Open Source Initiative to focus discussion on the technical superiority of open development models, avoiding troublesome talk about “freedom” and the nature of property.
Raymond had been invited out by Netscape to help them plan their browser source-code release … we might finally be able to get the corporate world to listen to what the hacker community had to teach about the superiority of an open development process. The conferees decided it was time to dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape. They brainstormed about tactics and a new label. “Open source”, contributed by Chris Peterson, was the best thing they came up with.
The Open Source Initiative helped to make business comfortable in the free software world, but the internet continued to have a troubled relationship with capitalism.
From the 1990s hackers and artists found themselves caught in an intensifying class conflict, as intellectual property owners manipulated the political process to strengthen laws protecting information’s status as property, even as that status became increasingly unenforceable in practise. To hackers, this could only be seen as an attempt to extract needless rent from a naturally abundant resource.
“Content owners”, alarmed by the emergence of file-sharing websites, began building digital locks, called Digital Rights Management (DRM), into DVDs, mp3s and even e-books. The hacker community was deeply offended by the idea of books that could not be resold or lent, and set about breaking the locks as fast as they could be designed. A class struggle was being fought simultaneously at the points of information production and consumption, because in the world of computers the point of production is the point of consumption.
Under intense music industry lobbying, several countries including the United States implemented laws banning any technology capable of bypassing DRM to allow copying. A series of high-profile prosecutions followed, most famously that of Russian programmer Dmitri Skylarov, who was arrested after giving a conference speech in the United States explaining how to break Adobe’s e-book DRM.
Under increasing attack, the wider geek and hacker communities began to radicalise to defend free speech and free information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was formed to offer legal support. Various hacker groups adopted political aims, most often aimed at guaranteeing free speech and defending the free internet.
The hackers were fighting the struggle, but during the 2000s the means of production and distribution for every kind of artist became available to anyone with a computer – free software began to allow the creation of a truly free culture.
Lawrence Lessig, who had predicted this as part of his “Code is Law” theory, founded Creative Commons, an organisation dedicated to giving individual writers, musicians and artists easy-to-understand ways of allowing others to share and modify their work, with the stated aim of bringing the freedoms of free software to all art:
It is no accident that those who understand this are those closest to technology. Our challenge will be to find ways to explain it so other creators get it as well …. Our single, overarching aim: build the public domain, by building projects that expand the range of creative work available for others to build upon.
Perhaps most importantly, they created a copyleft license for non-software works. Creative Commons provided the legal framework for the current flowering of free culture – Wikipedia, for example, may be copied and modified by anyone under a Creative Commons copyleft license. Artists began to join the free culture movement, dissatisfied with capital’s notion of them as interchangeable “content creators” and enticed by the possibilities of distribution free from industry control.
In 2003 now-infamous filesharing website the Pirate Bay, which has pioneered partnerships with Creative Commons artists, was spun off from Swedish group Piratbyrån. Piratbyrån was a think-tank on the nature of intellectual property created by hackers, artists and left activists to counter the Swedish Antipiratbyrån (Anti-Piracy Bureau). In 2006, they founded the Pirate Party, winning two seats in the European Parliament. and there are now Pirate Parties in countries across the globe campaigning for weaker intellectual property laws and free speech on the internet.
At least some members of Piratbyrån are radically anti-intellectual property, and their vision is consciously opposed to information as a commodity:
The copyright industry today likes to present the problem as if internet were just a way for so-called “consumers” to get so-called ”content”, and that we now just got to have ”a reasonable distribution” of money between ISP’s and content industry … It is totally wrong to regard our role as to represent “consumer interests”. On the contrary, it’s all about leaving the artificial division of humanity into the two groups ”producers” and ”consumers” behind. … We are now pounding the old mass medial aura and we are in a state of transgressing the hierarchical consumer-producer society. — Rasmus Fleischer of Piratbyrån speaking at the 2005 Chaos Communication Congress
The Pirate Bay were not merely pirates – they saw themselves as taking deliberate political actions to undermine the existing economic structure in favour of a new mode of production.
Piratbyrån itself disbanded in June 2010 and the Pirate Bay was sold, however the high level of support for Wikileaks provided by Scandinavian activists and the Pirate Party suggests that the wider milieu is alive and well.
Wikileaks also has roots in an influential 1990s discussion group, the Cypherpunk mailing list. “Cypherpunk”, formed from the words “cipher”, or code, and “cyberpunk”, a science fiction genre full of rogue hackers fighting corporate tyrants, indicates the members’ loose ideology – that the anonymity and security provided by computerised cryptography (“crypto”) could create a new society free from coercion, a system know as crypto-anarchy.
Many of us see strong crypto as the key enabling technology for a new economic and social system, a system which will develop as cyberspace becomes more important. A system which dispenses with national boundaries, which is based on voluntary (even if anonymous) free trade. At issue is the end of governments as we know them today. … Strong crypto permits unbreakable encryption, unforgeable signatures, untraceable electronic messages, and unlinkable pseudonymous identities. This ensures that some transactions and communications can be entered into only voluntarily. External force, law, and regulation cannot be applied. This is “anarchy,” in the sense of no outside rulers and laws.
The cypherpunks were ahead of their time, clearly anticipating Wikileaks’s use of anonymous, encrypted internet drop-boxes by 15 years or more – but then Julian Assange was a regular poster to the list. The hacker community has created the future it used to speculate about.
In one notorious incident, cypherpunk Jim Bell published an essay entitled “Assassination Politics”, which discussed the creation of a completely anonymous site where users could sponsor the assassination of corrupt politicians. Bell was later jailed for spying on federal agents, themselves sent to spy on him for writing the essay.
Assange laid the philosophical groundwork for Wikileaks when he replied to Assassination Politics in his State and Terrorist Conspiracies:
How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act? … We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to. … The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
With a single mechanism, Assange demonstrates the political implications of the new economics of information. If all information is can be copied freely, then organisations may be faced with no choice but to conduct the majority of their dealings openly. He has simply carried Eric S Raymond’s conclusion about Linux – that its open organisational model would always be more efficient than Microsoft’s closed model – into the political realm.
Wikileaks is the first concrete realisation of the crypto-anarchist dream: completely anonymous leaking, dealing blows to tyranny. However it has also highlighted the weak points in the free internet, surviving dangers to freedom of speech and the new mode of production.
Perhaps the most obvious is that large corporations control the physical infrastructure of the internet – the big servers and all the actual wires from place to place. Another danger is the monopolisation of some services – social networking by Facebook, search by Google. And with the recent cutting-off of Wikileaks funds by PayPal, Visa and Mastercard, the danger of state-corporate action to deny funds has become starkly apparent.
As is typical, the hacker community has been working on solutions for some time. There are projects to create wireless “mesh” networks, and projects to create distributed, open alternatives to Facebook and Google. There is even the Bitcoin project, which has the ambitious goal of creating a distributed virtual currency.
Marx described, in broad strokes, the ways in which political economy shapes society and history, but left the detail up to those alive at the time. The activism, organisation and ideology we see in the hacker community today are the material consequence of a new mode of production, a fundamental shift in the political economy of information. The free culture movement has (so far) defeated all attempts, both legal and technological, to reimpose information scarcity. If Marx was right then this is simply because the winds of history are behind us.
There is no way to predict where this will end – some hackers theorise that in the future, manufacturing will decentralise in the same way as information production, a miniature factory in every home if you will. The processes favouring decentralisation and organisational openness will continue to gain strength, as will the reaction against those processes. The only certainty is that the economic nature of information has changed forever. That fact will still be transforming our society a century from now.