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Among the niche community of early Rock ‘N’ Roll lovers, 3 February has been forever memorialised as “The Day the Music Died”. It was on this day, back in 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie “The Man” Valenz and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when a plane they were all on careened into a cornfield in Minnesota. For the nascent Rock ‘N’ Roll scene it was a tremendous loss, made worse by the knowledge that these musicians were only reaching the height of the powers. What music lovers lost in that wreckage was, to some, irreplaceable.
If history had taken a slightly different turn, a niche community of cypherpunks, anarcho-crypticists and internet enthusiasts would be lament the events of 4 February, 1993, and perhaps commemorate it as “The Day the Internet Died”. On this day, the US government announced its support for the “Clipper Chip”.
This wasn’t the first time the US government had enacted measures to take control of cyberspace. In 1977, a remarkably prescient piece of legislation defined strong digital encryption as a “munition”. In 1990, the FBI launched “Operation Sundevil”, a crackdown on hackers or anyone perceived to be engaged in hacking-like activity that even supporters admitted was over-zealous. The next year, Joe Biden tried to spearhead a piece of Senate legislation that would require electronic service communication providers to hand over all data to the government; he was narrowly voted down.
The Clipper Chip, however, was deemed the worst infraction on internet freedom yet, and led to what has retrospectively been called “the first holy war of the information highway”. The chip, which was to be made mandatory, would hold all communications in “key escrow”; information could then be transferred to the government upon request. It would be a forced universalised standard of encryption for all internet transactions, to which the NSA would hold all the keys.
For many internet users, and especially cypherpunks, this chip represented the pivot of history. Whether it was enforced would determine the course of internet freedom for the century to come. Would Big Brother win? Would internet surveillance and erosion of “civil liberties” become the norm? And if so, what would the internet look like?
Thanks to avid campaigning from hackers, cypherpunks, concerned citizens and senators, widely published papers exposing flaws in the Chips encryption systems, and a polemic entitled “Cyphernomicon”, the program was rendered defunct by 1996. The internet was safe, PGP coding was still damn-near watertight, surveillance schemes had been averted. It was a good time to be an internet user. Cypherpunks had won the battle.
It’s 6 June, 2013. A young man sits on a chair facing two interlocutors, stubbled and bespectacled, fear palpable in his eyes. More than anything, he looks exhausted. “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong,” he says, “you’re being watched and recorded.” The man is Edward Snowden.
He has just leaked an unprecedented amount of classified information straight from the NSA archives, and he’s making his case to two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The trove of disclosures revealed staggering levels of intrusive surveillance from the United States and its allies on their citizens. While it was not a complete shock to many people, bearing witness to proof of the enormity of malfeasance was chilling.
For his troubles, Snowden was charged with espionage and theft. He is currently in hiding. Whether you think he’s a hero or a menace, an inspiration or a petty criminal, there’s no denying that his actions sparked intense and complex debates over information privacy, or how free the internet really is.
I don’t want to belabour the whole cause and effect thing, but the internet we know and love today is the way it is because of the actions and protests of a group of cypherpunks, radicals and weirdos. Without their protests and subversions there would be no internet freedom or anonymity. There would certainly be no TOR network or 4chan or even reddit. All of our passwords would be known to the government.
The thought is jarring, considering the ubiquity of the internet and how goddamn wonderful it is. I’ll go on the record and say it might be humankind’s greatest achievement, something we didn’t know we needed but that connects us to troves of information, enables companionship and sharing of media and resources which are only a click away. It’s kind of magical. It might seem hyperbolic to compare its necessity to things like food, water and shelter, but France recently made internet access a basic human right—right or wrong, that gives you an idea of how integral it is to our society, anarcho-primitivists be damned.
But if Snowden is correct, then the internet is not as safe and free as we know. It might even be in jeopardy. Prior to Snowden’s revelations, many thought the internet too big, too unwieldy and diverse to control; clearly the NSA and our own GCSB have other ideas.
In September 2013, a few months after Snowden made his ominous pronouncements, the FBI conducted a massive raid of the TOR network, armed with information gleaned from surveillance and the Five Eyes Network. It was heavy-handed, taking down all websites hosted by “Freedom Hosting”—including the very legitimate, arguably essential anonymous email service, tormail—and tarring all users of Freedom Hosting websites with the same brush. The problem for those who are wary of government intrusion on the internet? This raid was also “the closest” the FBI had come to eradicating child pornography from the internet. Countless people were found and charged, websites were shut down and those that weren’t disappeared after the owners were rattled. Many deep web denizens remain deterred to this day. Child pornography become harder to access and, better, more dangerous to make.
It’s easy to see why unchecked monitoring rankles, and not just because of the simplistic argument that people who have done no wrong don’t “deserve” to be spied on. At the same time, a lot of the terms thrown around—“the death of freedom of speech”; “the death knell for our civil liberties”; “Big Brother has taken over”—seem a bit overwrought. Indeed, both sides err on the side of embellishment and exaggeration.
On the side of the government there’s the insistence that surveillance is a necessary step in keeping citizens secure and protected from terrorism and similar threats; on the other there’s assertions that censorship, or even monitoring, of the internet represents the end of democratic ideals and impinges on fundamental and legally bestowed freedoms, and that it’s all towards the end of turning civilians into malleable shills of the state—“sheeple”. Both of the claims are apocalyptic in their severity; to the outsider, it seems as though we’re one button-push away from devolving into something out of Mad Max.
For many crypto-anarchists, though, these fears are genuine. “Crypto”, in this instance, refers to the internet as a spatial plane where the fundamental tenets of Anarchism can be realised. However, crypto-anarchists can be separated into two different factions with radically opposing, even antithetical, worldviews.
There are your more “traditional” anarchists, those that believe the internet has the potential to emancipate the world from capitalist dictates and superstructures, and who genuinely believe that a world without government would see humans in their natural state as caring and empathetic; who left alone will create flourishing and equitable societies.
Then there are the libertarians, who believe that the internet fosters a “laissez-faire” economic market, completely free from government regulation or “distortion”. For these ideologues, money would be private and untraceable, and everything—and I mean everything—would be up for sale.
One side of the cryptos wants to destroy capitalism. The other wants to realise it in its most complete iteration. They may share a distrust of localisations of power, especially the government, cops and the justice system. They both believe that complete anonymity and privacy on the internet are essential to a flourishing, functional and utopic society. But their politics are also completely and utterly irreconcilable—right?
Not according to Calafou.
Nestled amongst the rolling hills on the outskirts of outer Barcelona lies a long-abandoned textile factory with 28,000 square metres of production space. It was derelict and half reconquered by nature. Where most people saw a safety hazard and a building in dire need of a wrecking ball, Enric Duran and the “Catalan Integral Operative” (CIC) saw something else.
Duran had earned himself the nickname “Robin Banks” after stealing about half a million euros from a group of Spanish banks. The method may have been inelegant—he convinced 39 different banks to give him a loan, paid back early loans to get a good enough credit rating to borrow as much as he could, and ran off with the money, dispersing it amongst various social activism groups along the way—but God was it effective, and it was his “donation” that gave CIC enough money to rent-to-buy the land and the abandoned building. The site was given a new name, “Calafou”, and given a slogan: “eco-industrial postcapitalist colony”.
Today there is no mention of Duran’s involvement on the website, which I assume is because the man is wanted by the Catalan Police, but the anarchic origins of the colony permeate the pamphlets anyway:
“Since its inception, the intent is to develop a network based on a network of cooperatives, individual projects and housing in a collectivised area. This seeks to facilitate the sharing of ideas, goods and resources to foster synergies in a natural way. A place for social innovation, technology and policy based on self-responsibility and cooperation.”
Calafou is an anarchist commune, an attempt at collective living. The inhabitants run and manage it and share all their resources. There are about thirty permanent residents, although many more radicals come and go. Their vision is to find ways of living outside capitalist machinations, based on the premise of political and economic self-determination.
Do not mistake it, however, for one of those communes or cults that yearns for primitivism, or pre-industrial life. Though there is a focus in creating an ecologically sound social system—experiments include trying to adapt car engines to run on water, and there are workshops on how to make foodstuffs yourself—the commune has embraced technology and strives for ways to disassociate technological advances from capitalist structures. One of its pet projects is the PLN—“Phone Liberation Network”—which would, if implemented, provide a free alternative to phone companies.
The most integral part of Calafou, however, and the facet that draws the most people, is its “hacklab”, a room where the best and brightest in the business are encouraged to create free, open-source software and other computer-related tools for the purposes of liberating the people from capitalism and its perceived evils. Especially surveillance.
When the Snowden leaks occurred in 2013, Calafou was suddenly the place to be for hackers and coders with a crypto-anarchist bent. For the price of one hundred Euro a month, Calafou offered these hackers the resources both to make a utopian idyll come true and to code, create and experiment to their heart’s content.
This is how Calafou came to be known as “hackerfou”. Without being there, I imagine it to be not unlike the base in Mr. Robot. There were reports of crypto-anarchists coding for 48 hours at a time, without breaks, chain-smoking rollies, working on dozens of projects at a time. The place attracted strange bedfellows. At one stage the commune was home to Smari McCarthy, social justice activist, bleeding-heart liberal and welfare supporter, and Amir Taaki, Anonymous-loving libertarian right-winger. They coded sitting directly next to one another.
The main project of hackerfou in 2013 (though there were many, many projects) was guaranteeing an anonymously-circulating currency. Crypto-anarchist Tim May postulated that alongside universal use of PGP encryption and the ability to browse the internet anonymously, an anonymous e-currency would complete the holy trinity necessary for the endgame of capitalism. The problem was that the most widely used variant of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is notoriously vulnerable to prying eyes.
Bitcoin is a decentralised unit of currency that is entirely digital. The cons? It is entirely theoretical, prone to widely fluctuating stock prices, and has been pronounced “dead” no fewer than twenty-nine times. The pros? It’s peer-to-peer; there’s no single administrating body controlling it; bartering in it does not charge the additional fee that credit cards company hack on. Because of its theoretical guarantee of anonymity and the relative ease of laundering it through various “bitwallets” (an online program that stores Bitcoin), it is frequently used for criminal enterprise as well as for legitimate online products and services, but it’s losing the stigma once attached to it. One city council in America even taught its homeless population to mine Bitcoin to keep them fed and sheltered.
It is also, of course, a crypto-anarchist dream. It takes money away from the state and from institutions and puts the individual in direct control of it. It’s either a complete rejection of capitalism or its capitalism’s inevitable endgame. It makes transactions completely anonymous, without state interference or surveillance.
Or it should; in reality, savvy hackers and governments are able to trace transactions through faulty exit nodes and wallets with poor security features. According to one study, because of its less frequent use, it is easier to trace transactions to the source when Bitcoin is used than when the user’s bank account is out in the open, so to speak.
Hence the project concocted at Calafou: the Dark Wallet. The Dark Wallet, which was released last year, was a huge step forward for cryptocurrency. It essentially buries Bitcoin transactions between layers upon layers of newly coded security measures. It creates “stealth addresses”, which are basically a couple of proxy addresses that are noted on the “blockchain” ledger that records Bitcoin transaction. It jumbles up transactions that are happening simultaneously among other dark wallet users, so no-one knows who sent what to whom, even those involved in the trade—only that there’s the right amount of money in their wallet. The release was literally years in the making, but the hours spent coding, checking and double-checking paid off. It made Bitcoin addresses nigh-on untraceable.
The ramifications of this development are pretty obvious (what if social media sites switch to blockchain? No more targeted ads, no more employer snooping). But is it a wholly good thing? If Tim May’s prophecy proves correct and people do switch to online currency, that would remove the government’s power to monitor us, and even their power full stop. Is that necessarily a good thing? It’s easy to rally against government, but without well-orchestrated ones will there be accessible schooling, hospitals, welfare systems, protection for society’s most vulnerable, protective safeguards for our most fundamental human rights? You could argue that unless something happens, and swiftly, this is the way our Western governments are going; that these things are being eroded by corporate interests anyway.
A decentralised currency system might not be the best answer. When everything is for sale, nefarious things are bound to crop up. In the world of crypto-anarchists, things like child pornography and guns are elephants in the room, usually waved away awkwardly as an “unfortunate consequence” or a “small issue” or “unlikely to be wanted without capitalism as the dominating social system”. In the words of Cody Wilson, who helped realise Dark Wallet, “understanding that rights and civil liberties are something that we protect is also understanding that they have consequences that are also protected, or tolerated. That’s just the way it is.”
This, to me, is a cop-out. I wanted to find someone to broach the issue with more candour and less dismissiveness and hopefully more logic and coherence. Certainly measures to eradicate child pornogaphy, for example, have been zealous and resulted in collateral damage, but they’ve worked and protected children. Isn’t that a good thing, on balance? This is why I turned to the Deep Web and Torchat to try to track someone down.
After tracking down, adding and getting blown off and/or personally insulted by a slew of deep web characters—predictably, hardcore TOR denizens are pretty protective of their privacy—with a deadline looming I, in a slightly panicked state, ended up posting a thread on a renowned chan. I asked if there was “someone to talk to about their views on internet freedom”, that I was “wondering how people justify it even if it entails CP [child pornography] and assassination markets” and ending with the assurance “I promise I’m not FBI lmao”. I was contacted by one of the mods. A proud and public crypto-anarchist, we and a couple of others rendezvoused on the e-equivalent of a smoky, unlit, empty bar—a thread on a “chan”-imageboard in the internet arse-end-of-nowhere.
The moderators’ answers were, I suspect, affectedly simple and ungrammatical in the name of obfuscating identity. They were also the most sane of the bunch. As it turns out, this was not a difficult achievement.
His reasoning for averting censorship was this: “broadly we don’t mind people posting links to the uncensored hidden wiki because we believe that internet should be uncontrolled by Big Brother and their LEA [law enforcement agencies] shills.” But what if this allows for the proliferation of child pornography?
He was unrepentent. “i personally dont see the attraction in kiddy porn, but i think people should be able to fap to whatever they want to fap to. we should respect their [paedophiles] freedom of speech too,” he said, before explaining “there are always going to be sick fucks and kiddy-fiddlers in the world. and that sucks. i hate the thought of children suffering. but that’s just the way it is. it’s human nature. its going to happen in any society irregardless [not a word] of whether you try to stop it. what doesnt have to happen is government control over our democracy and freedom.”
Ultimately, to this advocate, the pros of freedom outweighed the cons; or, rather, the ends justified the side-effects. In his own words, “tor has got big brother running scared, revealing themselves as corrupt greedy ineffective and useless”. Following this rant was a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion: “thanks for getting in touch”.
If this seems wayward at best and delusional at worst, it at least wasn’t as flagrantly errant as the views of another anonymous commenter who offered their opinion on the thread. Their thesis that “The main reason CP is illegal is because CP helps the government come up with excuses to enslave the populace. You might think this is a crazy idea, but if you follow my logic, you will realize it is actually true” was not followed by anything approximating logic but instead an extended diatribe invoking nuggets of wisdom a la “911 was almost certainly an inside job”, “they performed this false flag” and the clincher: “In actuality, terrorism and pedophilia are both excuses used by the government to surveillance and control the populace”.
After reiterating the treatise that “They [the people] are just making themselves into more docile slaves. The government is better able to control them, if the government can surveillance all of their activities on their computers and the Internet”, they concluded that “Our privacy and freedoms will only continue to erode, as long as pedophilia is demonized”. In the face of this overwhelming tirade, I responded “what the fuck”. Either their or another anonymous commenter’s rebuttal closed the thread: “>back to 4chan or le >reddit or le 9fag with you, faggot. something a little more your speed. adults are talking”. A picture of an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew was attached to the comment.
The prevailing reaction seems to be “there is nothing we can do to staunch the flow of child porn and murder markets”, whether that’s incorporated in a deranged argument about government control or otherwise. It’s ironic: the people who refuse to accept the status quo, who are adamant they can change government systems and that we can achieve a cyber-revolution, don’t want to take on the child porn industry. For a group that claims to be informed, it’s remarkably uncritical. For every fiercely intelligent leaders of this protest there lurks countless bottom-feeders that stand behind them.
Until this dynamic changes, and crypto-anarchists attempt to engage in a meaningful way with the ills their revolution would bring, their vision cannot be called utopian. While their goals of subverting government appear laudable, ultimately their envisioned paradise isn’t so different from the world they claim to loathe: a place where the most vulnerable and powerless are cast aside in favour of ideology. Unless this is rectified, or at the very least considered, the crypto-revolution is nothing but a pseudo-revolution.