Oh, dear. I see Michael Kelley of Business Insider, one of the consistently critical journalists on the Snowden story, has fallen -- like Robert Mackey and Jeremy Duns and others -- for this charade that Snowden put on with Putin. He writes: Why Snowden's Question to Putin is So Important, and Good for the US.
Boy, the Kremlin propaganda experts are smart; they know just how to play Western intellectuals even when they are critics; they realize that more than anything, liberals want to be rescued from the tar-brush of McCarthyism, and the mire of "one-sidedness." They want balance. They want harmony and equilibrium. And Putin knows how to give it to them!
I'm sorry to see Kelley fall on to this particular band-wagon, and I can only hope he'll recall this diversion in time and come back and admit that it was a dodge and a feint. My response:
First of all, to the claims that some lovely new thing has happened and there is some breakthrough -- um, there was already a global debate about the Internet even before Snowden; plenty of people debated oppressive control of the Internet in Russia before Snowden's propaganda stunt with Putin, too.
Perhaps it was just not in the mannered terms that world-renowed intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov prefers -- which is evidently affirmation of moral equivalence between the US and Russia -- actually, a claim that the US is *worse* because of its technical superiority -- so as to create a safety zone for cautious critics like himself inside Russia.
Some years ago the human rights activist Dmitry Makarov (@orlovets) asked me for ideas -- in desperation as the pressure was mounting on NGOs in Russia - for what causes they could pick up that would cross frontiers and be internationalized enough that leftists preoccupied with the West's sins could reach across the sea to beleaguered groups like his own and make common cause with them. He hit upon the case of Russian officials misusing copyright regulations put in place by Microsoft and its Russian lawyers to harass local NGOs and independent media with false claims that they had pirated copies of MS Word and other programs. Ridiculous, of course, but it ensured that anti-copyright activists like Rebecca McKinnon could pick up the cudgle to bash Microsoft, her real target, and along the way clear some brush for oppressed little groups in Russia supposedly harmed by MSFT. Ridiculous, up and down, and of course Microsoft itself made short work of this, but not before their Russian counterparts did a lot of damage.
And that idea stuck -- which is why Makarov and Eternal Youth Andrei Yurov have flogged the Snowden cause -- even wasting time in an NGO meeting with Obama on it -- because it's so perfectly international, so perfectly bashes the US, so seemingly "can be applied" to Russia, too -- look, Ma, no hands.
Except it's fake, because real fighting for real Internet freedom isn't about such games, but raising everything from the fact that blogger Oleg Kashin had his arm broken and was put in a coma by thugs to the fact that all companies are required to turn over six months of communications as a matter of course.
So here we all are now -- and we're supposed to pretend once again that we're having an international people's solidarity front on the Internet thanks to Snowden, the Guardian, and then Robert MacKay and Jeremy Duns -- all of whom have seized on Soldatov's statements in this sordid affair as proof of authenticity and its Meaningfulness.
So, unfortunately, more and more, we have to concede that whatever Soldatov's considerable accomplishments and bravery, whatever his considerable level of expertise and knowledge, he is operating in a compromised context. He's operating in a setting where web sites are being closed outright (40,000 of them); independent media like grani.ru, ej.ru etc are being blocked, along with blogs like opposition leader Andrei Navalny; that the remaining independent sites like Ekho Moskvy have to ditch Navalny, Boris Nemtsov and others to keep their own freedom, and sites like lenta.ru are losing their editors and journalists due to direct Kremlin interference and pressure. Pavel Durov has been ordered to turn over user data -- a reason he began to lose over his shares and then fight to try to get them back.
And it's not that Andrei denies these things; he might even reference them. But he doesn't fight them head on; indeed, few do, although 10,000 people did march for media freedom last week. To little avail.
What is increasingly becoming disconcerting to me is the manner in which Soldatov's *taxidermic descriptions* of things so Westerners can understand them is somehow doing a stand-in for actually really criticizing them head-on. We get it about "lack of server capacity" in Russia. But it doesn't matter. The Kremlin is malevolent in startling ways as we've seen with Putin's invasion of Ukraine and massive reining in of broadcast media even already under state control. In that context, to appear on the Guardian and praise Snowden without mentioning Durov is unconscionable, in my view; to have appeared with a question for Putin on state TV and not mention Durov was bad enough -- inadmissible in my view. If "for the sake of the cause" it had to be left off and a vaguer statement about mass surveillance put in -- perhaps, although it is misleading. But to leave out Durov in a Guardian piece you supposedly penned with your own hand is to let us know your politics are just as bad as the place you've ended up in.
If Snowden were independent and sincere, he'd ask why Durov was being asking to turn over personal data; instead, he set up a softball question for a tyrant, and then when he knocked it out of the park, pretended this was a parallel with Ron Wyden confronting James Clapper. As if controlled TV gyrations by a tyrant with cherry-picked questions and prisoner in a golden cage asking the permissible is even remotely like a democratically-elected congressman asking a question of an intelligence chief under congressional oversight!
Soldatov keeps repeating and repeating that we're facing a Balkanization of the Internet, and a break-up of the Internet into "sovereign internets" -- and the demand for nationalization of servers that used to be in the international free domain.
It's essentially already in effect. And all Soldatov can do is blame what he sees as "worse" intrusion by NSA as being "at fault" for triggering this -- as if Putin didn't have a plan for this all along, and hasn't been steadily working towards it. In Turkmenistan, the government works toward "one laptop per child" but the laptops are stuffed with state propaganda and hook up only to a government-controlled intranet. That's the extreme, but Russia will be on that continuum.
Fortunately, Russians already use circumvention software.But we are rapidly moving toward the day when the government will block these more thoroughly and block things like Facebook which is where intellectuals fled from the poor functioning and occasionally censorship of LiveJournal.
But Soldatov doesn't say how this will be stopped. He doesn't have a plan to stop it. He implies -- as NGOs tend to do -- that merely "starting a national conversation" will have an alchemical effect that will somehow curb this trend. How? He leaves the heavy-lifting to journalists -- themselves fired from their jobs, compromised, forced to make terrible decisions, and leaving the country. Unfair.
And truly, I don't notice anybody in the independent media, let alone the state media starting this lovely national conversation that we are all to be grateful to Snowden for (!). Snob.ru snickered. Most people rolled their eyes on their blogs. In fact, if anything, national conversation starters would include the architects of the Internet who call for reining in bloggers because they *are* irresponsible; conservative politicians actually writing this into law; and Zhirinovsky and NTV, maximalizing the Internet for use in state propaganda circuses demonizing Ukraine's EuroMaidan -- and any women reporters in Russia who ask questions they don't like.
And frankly, if Durov *was* in the "national conversation," it would only be to speak with a compromised position as well -- don't forget he's the one who offered Snowden a job. Durov, as a techie, is as much an anarcho-crypto kid as Snowden himself, and his ideas for society in fact are problematic and illiberal in the Ron Paul vein.
As for now having Snowden's ice-breaker enable "asking Greenwald" -- that's a one-day wonder. Greenwald's response in fact was only to ridicule those who have challenged him for never talking about Russia's excessive surveillance. Making the world safe for Greenwald to ask Putin about his intrusiveness without fear he's tearing his obsessive attention away from the real target of his hatred isn't progress.
And that's because it's not about balance. It's about recognizing where the real problem is -- Russia -- and always has been -- and recognizing that Snowden's end state there is not an accident, and undermines everything that he has done.
We know what Victoria Nuland said when the Russians hacked her conversation and tendentiously published it. We don't know what Angela Merkel said on the phone the NSA bugged. That's the difference between dictatorship and democracy, and it matters. It is not about technology capacity or mass surveillance, even; it's about the nature of states and what they do with it. It really is all about cases; in Russia, we know Navalny was bugged because NTV puts it in an atrocious hit show; in the US, Snowden slyly hints that Human Rights Watch was bugged, but we don't know where, who or how -- and frankly, if HRW staff met with Al Qaeda, which they have done, and signed join statements with their fronts, they have to expect the NSA to look in.
Snowden -- and now Soldatov, and even Michael Kelley -- hae all managed to distract from this reality.
I'm going to spend every week from now on asking Andrei Soldatov, Jeremy Duns, Robert MacKey, Michael Kelley and any others who are falling for this propaganda trick: where's the debate about the mass surveillance in Russia? And I expect answers.