While Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and countless other sites blacked out their pages to protest SOPA, a similar effort called for by Anonymous against CISPA went largely unnoticed on Monday. CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, allows companies to obtain "threat information" by looking at private data and handing it over to the government, bypassing standard privacy laws and warrants, in the name of "cyber security," according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In short, it's the surveillance creep Dominic wrote about last week—on the web. So if CISPA threatens privacy and freedom on the internet, why aren't we seeing the same level of outrage and resistance that we saw against SOPA last year?
The biggest difference is that while tech giants like Google and Facebook opposed SOPA, they support CISPA. As The Vergeexplained:
By allowing companies to share user data with each other or the government to combat vaguely defined "cyber threats," CISPA has raised major questions about online privacy.
Unlike SOPA, however, the provisions of CISPA largely absolve companies from responsibility if something goes wrong. This means that Google, Facebook, and others stand much less to lose (and in many cases, a good deal to gain) if it passes.
Or, as a member of Anonymous put it, "CISPA mostly effects the users of these services, and doesn't cut into profits of these big companies." In fact, companies supporting CISPA have spent some $605 million on lobbying since 2011.
The disparity between opposition to SOPA and CISPA comes down to capitalism. Media critic and UW alum Robert McChesney says it's the "elephant in the digital room," in his new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. He calls those who extoll the revolutionary powers of the internet (think Arab Spring, social media, and whoever dubbed last year's anti-SOPA blackout "Internet Freedom Day"), the celebrants. On the other end are the skeptics, who say the internet is just another addictive mass-communication technology. But they're missing the point.
Both camps, with a few exceptions, have a single, deep, and often fatal flaw that severely compromises the value of their work. That flaw, simply put, is ignorance about really existing capitalism and an underappreciation of how capitalism dominates social life. Celebrants and skeptics lack a political economic context. The work tends to take capitalism for granted as part of the background scenery and elevate technology to ride roughshod over history.
Both camps miss the way capitalism defines our times and sets the terms for understanding not only the Internet, but most everything else of a social nature, including politics, in our society.
Political economy—an understanding of capitalism and its relationship to democracy—can provide a rudder as we make sense of the Internet...The ways capitalism works and does not work determine the role the Internet might play in society.
I asked McChesney what he thinks of CISPA, and he responded with series of disturbing, big-picture questions to which I had no good answers: "The real concern with CISPA is that it's a confluence of national security state and the large corporations that dominate the Internet and have the clouds...Why do we have situations like CISPA, like SOPA? Why are thirteen of the largest companies, in terms of monetary value, Internet companies? Where is this competition we were told we'd be getting? The future seems to be much more one of hyper commercialization and advertising everywhere, of surveillance, than of empowered individuals slaying monopolistic tyrannical governments and companies."
CISPA passed in the House last week (the White House has threatened a veto). If we want the technological future we've been imagining, killing CISPA with fire would be a good start.