The Internet as a Militia – by “Joshua E”

The Bill of Rights was not a guarantee of individual liberties. Rather, before the Fourteenth Amendment came along and everything went to hell, it was better viewed as a limit on the despotic potential of a centralized government; a potential that terrified the founders of our Constitution. Thus the First Amendment was a guarantee that the national government would not suppress assembly, speech, and the political discourse necessary to oppose tyranny. Thus the Second Amendment was a guarantee that states could hold militias in order to resist with force an oppressive government. Of course I am oversimplifying a very complex and contentious debate, but allow me for a moment to make a logical fallacy. This guy agrees with my view of the Bill of Rights:

So obviously I’m right. Let’s just leave it at that. I apologize for the many Yale words in my opening paragraph.

I, like Jack Balkin, am interested in how the development of the Internet changes the role that the Constitution has in our current society. Balkin focuses on the oppression of free speech by private companies, and how unable the Courts are to provide meaningful protection in this area. He believes that fighting technological infrastructures, business models, and social practices with well-crafted laws is the way to protect our liberties. He believes that the Internet has fundamentally changed the Bill of Rights’ ability to protect us from government (it’s original purpose, as outlined above), and therefore we must look extra-judicially to protect our rights.

The pacifist in me wonders whether the Internet landscape has also fundamentally lessened the necessity for militias, and other Constitutional protections against an abusive government that attempts to limit our free speech. Due to its interconnectedness the Internet is extremely difficult to regulate (though not impossible). In the past if a government wanted to quell speech, they had pretty effective means of doing it. Books can be banned or burned. Radio communications can be jammed. Protests can be broken up. The Internet is a whole other animal. Because it is generative, it allows people to circumvent many of the ways in which a government might try and limit access to certain material (for example by the use of proxies). In this way, I believe it acts as a check on the government. When the government gets out of control, the citizenry does not need to revolt using militias, they can simply tweet about it. Despite the fact that the following governments do not share the same Constitutions as we do, nor necessarily the same values, some examples from around the world will I think be illustrative.

Russian Coup

In 1991 leaders of the Communist Party in Russia led a coup against president Gorbachev. The leaders struck while Gorbachev was on vacation, and they hoped to expand support for their cause by limiting the flow of information to the west and most importantly to their people. They censored both news and phone links to the west. Television played nothing but operas and old movies. Their strategy would have been effective, except for one main flaw: Relcom.

Relcom, an acronym for reliable communications, was a basic computer network that Russia launched in 1990. Though Relcom was a purely e-mail network at the time, it still had the power to undermine the government’s efforts to suppress the free flow of information. Those who opposed the revolution were attempting to distribute a decree by Boris Yelzin which attempted to inform the public of the coup and what was happening. Without Relcom, they would have had to scour the city for available photocopiers and distribute copies by hand. Instead supporters simply sent a copy to one of the Relcom founders who was able to copy and distribute the decree.

Furthermore, Relcom aided in the information flow from the West into Russia. One California professor would listen to the radio in America and take notes on what American newscasters were saying. Then, he would type a summary into an email and send it through Relcom to supporters in Russia who would distribute the information. A similar practice occurred between Denmark and Russia, providing the Danish perspective on what was happening as well. These reports, in addition to eyewitness testimony circulated through Relcom gave citizens on the ground a relatively accurate picture of what was going on, and allowed them to resist.

With such an omnipresence of information, the rebellion didn’t stand a chance. The Coup lasted a mere two days.

Kuwait Invasion

Also in 1991, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. After a decisive victory by Iraq, Saddam Hussein installed Alaa Hussein Ali as the Prime Minister of the “Provisional Government of Free Kuwait”. Kuwait was hardly free, however. Most forms of traditional media were cut off, severely limiting Kuwait’s ability to communicate with the outside world. But like in Russia, the Iraqi strategy had one main flaw: IRC.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a way of real-time chatting through the Internet. Traffic to IRC skyrocketed during the invasion, because it allowed people who could not escape Kuwait to communicate to the outside world for a good week after traditional media was cut off. These communications in conjunction with the efforts of those that had fled Kuwait, rallied international support to condemn the actions of Iraq, eventually leading to the Gulf War.

So, yes, violence was necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But what I find interesting about this situation is that it was not necessarily internal military force from Kuwait that allowed them to succeed. Rather, the Internet, and IRC, allowed the free flow of information throughout Kuwait and throughout the rest of world, allowing Kuwait to get the support that it needed.

These IRC communications are stored to this very day, and can be seen here.

To the future

The two examples given notably come from twenty years ago. Our world, our Internet, and our governments have certainly changed. Now, as alluded to earlier, oppressive governments have developed tools to prevent the free flow of information on the internet. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the technical means that a government could use to limit connection through the Internet, because being a humanities geek I don’t. But if I had to bet on who would win in a fight, government computer science experts or lulzsec hackers, I would probably choose the lulzsec hackers.

We live today in an intellectual world. This is why militias are nonexistent in America (yes, Sarah Palin and the like still carry around firearms, but in the case of actual government tyranny I question how effective ragtag gunman that can see Russia from their houses will be in fighting our national army). Our weapons against governmental oppression of free speech are not guns, but rather speech itself by means of the internet. I am a firm believer than the pen is mightier than the sword. When our government was created, the Founders allowed for militias and similar protections because a tyrannical government had the power to suppress the pen. With the advent of the internet the government no longer has that power. The Internet has become our militia in the fight against governmental despotism.

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