Tor, Technocracy, Democracy

As important as the technical issues regarding Tor are, at least as important—probably more important—is the political worldview that Tor promotes (as do other projects like it). While it is useful and relevant to talk about formations that capture large parts of the Tor community, like “geek culture” and “cypherpunks” and libertarianism and anarchism, one of the most salient political frames in which to see Tor is also one that is almost universally applicable across these communities: Tor is technocratic. Technocracy is a term used by political scientists and technology scholars to describe the view that political problems have technological solutions, and that those technological solutions constitute a kind of politics that transcends what are wrongly characterized as “traditional” left-right politics.

In a terrific recent article describing technocracy and its prevalence in contemporary digital culture, the philosophers of technology Evan Selinger and Jathan Sadowski write:

Unlike force wielding, iron-fisted dictators, technocrats derive their authority from a seemingly softer form of power: scientific and engineering prestige. No matter where technocrats are found, they attempt to legitimize their hold over others by offering innovative proposals untainted by troubling subjective biases and interests. Through rhetorical appeals to optimization and objectivity, technocrats depict their favored approaches to social control as pragmatic alternatives to grossly inefficient political mechanisms. Indeed, technocrats regularly conceive of their interventions in duty-bound terms, as a responsibility to help citizens and society overcome vast political frictions.

Such technocratic beliefs are widespread in our world today, especially in the enclaves of digital enthusiasts, whether or not they are part of the giant corporate-digital leviathan. Hackers (“civic,” “ethical,” “white” and “black” hat alike), hacktivists, WikiLeaks fans, Anonymous “members,” even Edward Snowden himself walk hand-in-hand with Facebook and Google in telling us that coders don’t just have good things to contribute to the political world, but that the political world is theirs to do with what they want, and the rest of us should stay out of it: the political world is broken, they appear to think (rightly, at least in part), and the solution to that, they think (wrongly, at least for the most part), is for programmers to take political matters into their own hands.

While these suggestions typically frame themselves in terms of the words we use to describe core political values—most often, values associated with democracy—they actually offer very little discussion adequate to the rich traditions of political thought that articulated those values to begin with. That is, technocratic power understands technology as an area of precise expertise, in which one must demonstrate a significant level of knowledge and skill as a prerequisite even to contributing to the project at all. Yet technocrats typically tolerate no such characterization of law or politics: these are trivial matters not even up for debate, and in so far as they are up for debate, they are matters for which the same technical skills qualify participants. This is why it is no surprise that amount the 30 or 40 individuals listed by the project as “Core Tor People,” the vast majority are developers or technology researchers, and those few for whom politics is even part of their ambit, approach it almost exclusively as technologists. The actual legal specialists, no more than a handful, tend to be dedicated advocates for the particular view of society Tor propagates. In other words, there is very little room in Tor for discussion of its politics, for whether the project actually does embody widely-shared political values: this is taken as given.

freedom is slavery

“Freedom Is Slavery,” a flag of the United Technocracies of Man, a totalitarian oligarchic state in the Ad Astra Per Astera alternate history by RvBOMally

This would be fine if Tor really were “purely” technological—although just what a “purely” technological project might be is by no means clear in our world—but Tor is, by anyone’s account, deeply political, so much so that the developers themselves must turn to political principles to explain why the project exists at all. Consider, for example, the Tor Project blog post written by lead developer Roger Dingledine that describes the “possible upcoming attempts to disable the Tor network” discussed by Yasha Levine and Paul Carr on Pando. Dingledine writes:

The Tor network provides a safe haven from surveillance, censorship, and computer network exploitation for millions of people who live in repressive regimes, including human rights activists in countries such as Iran, Syria, and Russia.

And further:

Attempts to disable the Tor network would interfere with all of these users, not just ones disliked by the attacker.

Why would that be bad? Because “every person has the right to privacy. This right is a foundation of a democratic society.”

This appears to be an extremely clear statement. It is not a technological argument: it is a political argument. It was generated by Dingledine of his own volition; it is meant to be a—possibly the—basic argument that that justifies Tor. Tor is connected to a fundamental human right, the “right to privacy” which is a “foundation” of a “democratic society.” Dingledine is certainly right that we should not do things that threaten such democratic foundations. At the same time, Dingledine seems not to recognize that terms like “repressive regime” are inherently and deeply political, and that “surveillance” and “censorship” and “exploitation” name political activities whose definitions vary according to legal regime and even political point of view. Clearly, many users of Tor consider any observation by any government, for any reason, to be “exploitation” by a “repressive regime,” which is consistent for the many members of the community who profess a variety of anarchism or anarcho-capitalism, but not for those with other political views, such as those who think that there are circumstances under which laws need to be enforced.

Especially concerning about this argument is that it mischaracterizes the nature of the legal guarantees of human rights. In a democracy, it is not actually up to individuals on their own to decide how and where human rights should be enforced or protected, and then to create autonomous zones wherein those rights are protected in the terms they see fit. Instead, in a democracy, citizens work together to have laws and regulations enacted that realize their interpretation of rights. Agitating for a “right to privacy” amendment to the Constitution would be appropriate political action for privacy in a democracy. Even certain forms of (limited) civil disobedience are an important part of democracy. But creating a tool that you claim protects privacy according to your own definition of the term, overtly resisting any attempt to discuss what it means to say that it “protects privacy,” and then insisting everyone use it and nobody, especially those lacking the coding skills to be insiders, complain about it because of its connection to fundamental rights, is profoundly antidemocratic. Like all technocratic claims, it challenges what actually is a fundamental precept of democracy that few across the political spectrum would challenge: that open discussion of every issue affecting us is required in order for political power to be properly administered.

It doesn’t take much to show that Dingledine’s statement about the political foundations of Tor can’t bear the weight he places on it. I commented on the Tor Project blog, pointing out that he is using “right to privacy” in a different way from what that term means outside of the context of Tor: “the ‘right to privacy’ does not mean what you assert it means here, at all, even in those jurisdictions that (unlike the US) have that right enshrined in law or constitution.” Dingledine responded:

Live in the world you want to live in. (Think of it as a corollary to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.)

We’re not talking about any particular legal regime here. We’re talking about basic human rights that humans worldwide have, regardless of particular laws or interpretations of laws.

I guess other people can say that it isn’t true — that privacy isn’t a universal human right — but we’re going to keep saying that it is.

This is technocratic two-stepping of a very typical sort and deeply worrying sort. First, Dingledine claimed that Tor must be supported because it follows directly from a fundamental “right to privacy.” Yet when pressed—and not that hard—he admits that what he means by “right to privacy” is not what any human rights body or “particular legal regime” has meant by it. Instead of talking about how human rights are protected, he asserts that human rights are natural rights and that these natural rights create natural law that is properly enforced by entities above and outside of democratic polities. Where the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 is very clear that states and bodies like the UN to which states belong are the exclusive guarantors of human rights, whatever the origin of those rights, Dingledine asserts that a small group of software developers can assign to themselves that role, and that members of democratic polities have no choice but to accept them having that role.

We don’t have to look very hard to see the problems with that. Many in the US would assert that the right to bear arms means that individuals can own guns (or even more powerful weapons). More than a few construe this as a human or even a natural right. Many would say “the citizen’s right to bear arms is a foundation of a democratic society.” Yet many would not. Another democracy, the UK, does not allow citizens to bear arms. Tor, notably, is the home of many hidden services that sell weapons. Is it for the Tor developers to decide what is and what is not a fundamental human right, and how states should recognize them, and to distribute weapons in the UK despite its explicit, democratically-enacted, legal prohibition of them? (At this point, it is only the existence of legal services beyond Tor’s control that make this difficult, but that has little to do with Tor’s operation: if it were up to Tor, the UK legal prohibition on weapons would be overwritten by technocratic fiat.)

We should note as well that once we venture into the terrain of natural rights and natural law, we are deep in the thick of politics. It simply is not the case that all political thinkers, let alone all citizens, are going to agree about the origin of rights, and even fewer would agree that natural rights lead to a natural law that transcends the power of popular sovereignty to protect. Dingledine’s appeal to natural law is not politically neutral: it takes a side in a central, ages-old debate about the origin of rights, the nature of the bodies that guarantee them.

That’s fine, except when we remember that we are asked to endorse Tor precisely because it instances a politics so fundamental that everyone, or virtually everyone, would agree with it. Otherwise, Tor is a political animal, and the public should accede to its development no more than it does to any other proposed innovation or law: it must be subject to exactly the same tests everything else is. Yet this is exactly what Tor claims it is above, in many different ways.

Further, it is hard not to notice that the appeal to natural rights is today most often associated with the political right, for a variety of reasons (ur-neocon Leo Strauss was one of the most prominent 20th century proponents of these views). We aren’t supposed to endorse Tor because we endorse the right: it’s supposed to be above the left/right distinction. But it isn’t.

Tor, like all other technocratic solutions (or solutionist technologies) is profoundly political. Rather than claiming it is above them, it should invite vigorous political discussion of its functions and purpose (as at least the Tor Project’s outgoing Executive Director, Andrew Lewman, has recently stated, though there have yet to be many signs that the Tor community, let alone the core group of “Tor People,” agrees with this). Rather than a staff composed entirely of technologists, any project with the potential to intercede so directly in so many vital areas of human conduct should be staffed by at least as many with political and legal expertise as it is by technologists. It should be able to articulate its benefits and drawbacks fully in the operational political language of the countries in which it operates. It should be able to acknowledge that an actual foundation of democratic polities is the need to make accommodations and compromises between people whose political convictions will differ. It needs to make clear that it is a political project, and that like all political projects, it exists subject to the will of the citizenry, to whom it reports, and which can decide whether or not the project should continue. Otherwise, it disparages the very democratic ground on which many of its promoters claim to operate.

This, in the end, is one reason that Pando’s coverage of Tor is so important, and a reason it strikes me as seriously unfortunate to suggest that. I think many in Tor know much less about politics than they think they do. If they did, they might wonder as I do why it is that organizations like Radio Free Asia and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have been such persistent supporters of the project. These organizations are not in the business of supporting technology for technology’s sake, or science for the sake of “pure science.” Rather, they promote a particular view of “media freedom” that is designed to promote the values of the US and some of its allies. These organizations have strong ties to the intelligence community. Anyone with a solid knowledge of political history will know that RFA and BBG only fund projects that advance their own interests, and that those interests are those of the US at its most hegemonic, at its most willing to push its way inside of other sovereign states. Many view them as distributors of propaganda, pure and simple.

You don’t have to look hard to find this information: Wikipedia itself notes that Catharin Dalpino of the centrist Brookings Institution think tank (ie, no wild-eyed radical) says of Radio Free Asia: “It doesn’t sound like reporting about what’s going on in a country. Often, it reads like a textbook on democracy, which is fine, but even to an American it’s rather propagandistic.” It is no stretch to see the “media freedom” agenda of these organizations and the “internet freedom” agenda surrounding Tor as more alike than different. Further, Tor is arguably a much more powerful tool than are media broadcasts, despite how powerful those themselves are. This is not to say that it is absolutely wrong for the US to promote its values this way, or that everything about Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia was and is bad. It’s to say these are profoundly political projects, and democracy demands that the citizenry and its elected representatives, not technocrats, decide whether to pursue them.

We are often told that Tor is just trying to do good, trying to inspire respect for human decency and human rights, and that its community is just being attacked because it is “an easy target.” Yet the contrary story is much more rarely told: that Tor encourages a technocratic dismissal of democratic values, and promotes serious and seriously uninformed anti-government hostility. Further, despite the claims of its advocates that Tor is meant to protect “activists” against human rights abuses (as the Tor community construes these), the fact remains that to many observers, Tor is just as lucidly seen as a tool that promotes and encourages human rights abuses of the very worst kind: child pornography, child exploitation, all the crimes and suffering that go along with worldwide distribution of illegal drugs, assassination for hire, and much more. The Tor community dismisses these worries as “FUD” (or more poetically, the “Four Horsemen of the Info-Apocalypse”) but evidence that they are real is very hard for the objective observer to overlook (even lists on the open web of the most widely-used hidden services reveals very few that are not involved in circumventing laws that many my consider not only reasonable but important). The “use case” for encrypted messaging such as OTR (Off-The-Record messaging) is far easier to understand in a political sense than is the one for the hidden services that sell drugs, weapons, promote rape porn, and so on. It is beyond ironic that a tool for which the most salient uses may be the most serious affronts to human rights should be promoted as if its contributions to human rights are so obvious as to be beyond question. Does Tor do “good”? No doubt. But it also enables some very bad things, at least as I personally evaluate “good” and “bad.” You can’t say that on the one hand the good it enables accrues to Tor’s benefit, while the bad it enables is just an unavoidable cost of doing business. With very limited exceptions (e.g. speech itself, and even there the balance is contested) we don’t treat cultural phenomena that way. The only name for striking the right balance between those poles is politics, and it is entirely possible that the political balance Tor strikes is one that, were it better understood, few people would assent to. Making decisions about matters like this, not the expanded and putative “right to privacy,” is the foundation of democracy. Unless Tor learns not just to accommodate but to encourage such discussions, it will remain a project based on technocracy, not democracy, and therefore one that those of us concerned about the fate of democracy must view with significant concern.

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