"... activists, whistleblowers and business opportunists [are] using the flattened information hierarchies and easy, rapid distribution systems of the internet to undermine government and corporate élites."But the selectivity of governments in punishing online lawbreaking can rapidly undermine any legitimacy "special deterrence" has. There's an entire market for zero-day exploits in which hackers and "exploit brokers" profit from selling undisclosed software security weaknesses to whoever will pay for them -- including government agencies, and not just the usual suspects like China, but US government agencies. The sale of these exploits isn't only for cyber defence but to enable surveillance and to develop cyberweapons, the best example being Stuxnet. This is consistent with the US government’s own relaxed approach to laws around surveillance. This is the government that, not content with having some of the most surveillance-friendly laws outside of Beijing, spied on the internet usage of all American citizens, then got Congress to retrospectively make it legal; this is the government that has admitted committing a breach of the constitution in its surveillance of Americans; this is the government that has declared "war on whistleblowers", even when they have revealed the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars by the government. And the logic of "special deterrence" is further undermined by the treatment of Dotcom, a man transformed by his persecution into an online activist hero but whose motivations have always been purely commercial. In fact the legal response to Moylan -- and to Swartz, Hammond, Manning, Brown, Assange Dotcom and many others -- is part of a much longer tradition, of exemplary punishment. Exemplary punishment is a technique used by élites when they become aware that their power is being undermined by forces or technologies beyond their capacity to handle. Unable to strike directly against oppositional forces, they rely on heavily punishing those offenders to deter others. An important component of this technique, and one that highlights the lie that this is about deterring ideologically-motivated lawbreakers, is to overhype the actual threat posed, and to displace the target of the threat from what it actually is -- those in power -- to the community. Moylan's prank was thus said to have caused "untold harm" by Fairfax; a Daily Telegraph hack claimed Moylan had cost "mum and dad investors" hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dotcom, the US Department of Justice had claimed, ran "an international organized criminal enterprise allegedly responsible for massive worldwide online piracy... causing more than half a billion dollars in harm to copyright owners." This reflexive overhyping echoes the response to Assange. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables had, numerous critics initially claimed, placed people lives in danger, done "untold damage to diplomacy" and Assange was a "high-tech terrorist". Manning has actually been charged with "aiding the enemy" by placing material in the public domain, a charge that should terrify every journalist. Hillary Clinton declared the material released by WikiLeaks and allegedly leaked by Manning "an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity". What all of these incidences have in common is activists, whistleblowers and business opportunists using the flattened information hierarchies and easy, rapid distribution systems of the internet to undermine government and corporate élites who have long relied on information control. Indeed, Swartz’s action was the quintessence of this. Even Moylan’s prank reflects how once-trusted forms of information distribution -- an official, authentic media release -- can be easily mimicked in an online media environment. Pranks can also reveal how few journalists, especially in business media, have the time or, apparently, even the inclination to display scepticism toward what they are being fed. But here’s the problem for lawmakers and law enforcers: exemplary punishment doesn't work. Exemplary punishment merely serves to draw attention to acts of civil disobedience or ideologically-motivated lawbreaking -- exactly what their perpetrators want -- to motivate supporters and engage the uninterested by outraging their sense of justice. Martin Luther King's civil rights marches in the south in the early 1960s were perfect examples of this, despite the very "special deterrence" handed out via billy clubs, dogs and fire hoses. Exemplary punishment didn’t work in England in the 16th or 19th centuries in the face of threats like Protestantism or trade unionism. Indeed, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a collection of stories about Protestant victims of persecution, became a key propaganda work in the English Reformation. Eventually, élites either have to shift to a full-scale surveillance state like East Germany or Iran, inculcate self-censorship like the Chinese government or accept the power balance between citizens and their governments has shifted in favour of the former. Anyone whose job relies on controlling information, of any kind and in any way, needs to understand that that job is changing rapidly because the internet has massively reduced the cost and difficulty of moving large amounts of information around. Regulators, law enforcement and policymakers need to understand that whether they like it or not, there will be more Aaron Swartzs, Bradley Mannings, Julian Assanges, and Kim Dotcoms. Reacting like a 16th century monarchy isn't going to help one bit.
Online activists and exemplary punishment
Across the world, authorities are wildly overreacting to the threat posed by online activism. History says it won't work. Expect more Aaron Swartzs, Bradley Mannings and Kim Dotcoms in coming years.