The history of the internet receives little attention in America. We sort of think computers became popular in the 80s, that the internet came about in the mid-90s and everybody lived happily ever after until the election of Donald Trump, which was the first example of the internet’s use as a geopolitical weapon.
This narrative barely scratches the surface and is, in fact, misleading. If you want a full picture of the internet’s origins, look no further than Yasha Levine’s “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.” The book strongly rebukes the notion that the internet is a tool designed for democracy and situates its origins firmly in the US military-industrial complex, which still exercises a great deal of control over the Internet today.
According to Levine’s research, the internet emerged during the US’ involvement in Vietnam through the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPANET, as it was known then, was used to surveil the entire Vietnamese population and conduct brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Vietnam and surrounding countries.
It didn’t stop there though. ARPANET made its way back to the US and into the hands of the Pentagon and various other agencies, which used it to spy on American political movements as far back as the 70s. There were even protests at MIT as early as 1969 that lambasted ARPANET as a tool of the US empire. This history forms the basis of Levine’s thesis: The Internet emerged first and foremost as an American counterinsurgency tool.
Fast forward to the present, and you will see that many elements of the internet that we currently enjoy are still deeply tied to US geopolitical interests. Silicon Valley, for all its liberatory rhetoric, is fueled by money, instruction and infiltration from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. Amazon, for example, has a $600 million cloud computing contract with the CIA. Google has developed technology for the perfection of drone warfare and predictive policing. Twitter acts at the behest of the US State Department and takes down accounts that “undermine faith in NATO.”
Last time I checked, NATO is not a religion in which we have “faith” but a military alliance that secures the economic and political interests of the US and Europe, often to the detriment of third-world peoples. Yet, Silicon Valley companies claim that they care about marginalized people. How curious.
Unfortunately, all this is to say that the internet is not the liberatory tool of democracy we might have thought it was. It is, effectively, the most sophisticated surveillance and propaganda tool ever invented, and it is firmly in authoritarian hands. Levine shows that even the internet privacy movement — which touts encrypted apps like Tor, Signal and Telegram as our saviors — is corrupted by US government funding and development initiatives that aim to assist the US in espionage and regime-change efforts.
We’ve seen what happens when somebody actually tries to utilize the internet in the interest of transparency: They are hounded for the rest of their lives and subjected by governments to unimaginable suffering — look no further than the case of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who has been unjustly imprisoned for over a decade for demonstrating the truth about war and corporate-state corruption.
If we want to change the structure of our society, it’s a safe bet that any attempts to do so over the internet will meet with failure. The platforms we all rely on for communal engagement are clearly not designed to facilitate radical politics, and activists can’t rely on a crypto-culture that is itself a product of the corporations and government which they aim to challenge.
“Surveillance Valley” might not be an encouraging read, but it is certainly enlightening and gives a realistic picture of our political predicament today. Buy it at your local bookstore, or order it online — just don’t buy it on Amazon.