The deceitful promise of freedom

There’s a very powerful essay by Hossein Derakhshan on Medium about the Internet wasteland. It’s particularly poignant coming from someone who spent several years in jail as a result of his activities online:

“I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment.

Anyone deeply engaged in the days of blogging will relate to these views.

That was an exciting time that seemed capable of capturing the utopia the Internet appeared to offer. If only it hit mainstream before the social networks got their claws in.

Of course, sometimes I wonder if our memories deceive us and that the people’s struggle to break free of control was never any more attainable during the blogging days than it is today.

Perhaps the fight is eternal, an innate anthropological prison humans find themselves trapped within, sometimes both emotionally and physically.

I’m not that fatalistic, really. There have been many battles won on our behalf before our time that have made our lives much better than our predecessors’. And there will be other great victories won by the people in the future.

Unfortunately, in the case of blogging, I agree with Hossein that freedom got outflanked before that revolution had legs to stand on. Annoyingly, we’re all complicit and every time we ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ we’re pumping more collective fuel into the centralized machines that defeated it.

Being a parent is a fantastic education. Watching my kids take toys apart to see how they work only to discover they can’t put them back together is a sharp reminder of how our brains work.

Computers, networks, phones, and social networks weren’t invented by people who wanted to control the world. They were invented by intensely curious and ambitious people who wanted to take apart ‘the system’.

They took great pride in their David vs Goliath stories, never more brazenly than the historic Apple Big Brother ad.

But after dismantling the status quo many of these folks have spent the rest of their careers putting the pieces of their foe back together again in their own image.

Instead of defending the freedom they espoused in obtaining their position of power they focused all their power on securing their future for themselves, constructing impenetrable walls against the threat of a younger and hungrier version of themselves attacking.

The promise of freedom from tyranny is a great marketing strategy for a startup. That message resonates deeply within our psyche because it is a universal sentiment.

But sometimes it’s a lie.

We need startups to invent better ways of doing things. We need people to lead the never-ending fight for our freedoms. We all need to be more honest about when those two things are in conflict.

Who is in charge of the global economy – us or them?

I’ve always looked up to independent-minded people who can strike a balance between operating within ‘the system’ and changing it through their work, particularly when that work is in the public interest.

Vivienne Westwood is such a person.

I met her recently to discuss working together, and she didn’t disappoint. She began the meeting describing a world view that concerns her, one that should concern all of us. And we considered ways to use people-supported journalism to improve public dialog about it.

The world view that concerns her is the way global power is getting rewired. She’s going to edit the next issue of Contributoria to focus on this.
Vivienne Westwood edition of Contributoria

It’s about international trade agreements and corporate law. It’s about the democratic process within and between countries. It’s about human rights and the environment. And it’s about those who we normally depend on to keep power in check but either can’t do it, won’t do it or fail to do it well.

It’s a big topic with lots of nuance that I don’t understand, yet, but it is easy to see the erosion of democracy when international trade deals result in agreements that disregard laws and policies won through hard-fought democratic processes.

Democratic principles can be interpreted in different ways, but at minimum people should have a voice in the decisions made on their behalf. And they need a role in choosing who is making those decisions.

Everyone, including profit-motivated groups, have a right to question the law. But democracy is pretty good at making sure we know what we’re gaining and losing if we decide to change the law.

Is democracy really at risk here?

I dunno. I find it hard to believe we would let it get to that.

But then again I had no idea that ISDS existed until very recently.

ISDS is an “instrument” of international law. This isn’t a musical instrument. It’s a method or standard for enforcing trade deals, enabling companies to sue governments for lost profits. It means public policy can’t conflict with what’s been decided in the deal. ISDS ensures that the law is subservient to the trade agreement.

In one of the pamphlets (pdf) championing ISDS in the UK they say proudly, “ISDS gives UK companies access to independent tribunals and to possible compensation when they are treated unfairly by [partner countries]. It also deters [partners] from acting unfairly in the first place.”

In other words, “Don’t worry about international laws. We’ve got your back. And if any government gives you trouble, we’ll help you to sue the sh*t out of them. They won’t f*ck with you again.”

It’s being used more like a weapon than an “instrument”.

To be fair, an international court may in fact fuel growth if companies have some assurances that they can fight back if they’ve been treated unfairly somewhere. But only big corporates with deep pockets are going to benefit, and they will likely only use that system against smaller countries with weaker legal systems who might threaten their business model, perhaps for good reason.

An excellent piece in The New Yorker explains how ISDS is designed to undermine sovereignty.

“I.S.D.S. was originally meant to protect investors against seizure of their assets by foreign governments. Now I.S.D.S. lawsuits go after things like cancelled licenses, unapproved permits, and unwelcome regulations.”

The context becomes clear when you look at what Philip Morris did when Australia passed plain packaging legislation on cigarettes there. Philip Morris sued Australia because they claimed the new plain packaging law affected their profits.

Even more bizarrely, they didn’t have the right trade deal in place to sue Australia directly. They essentially invested in operations in Australia in order to use a different trade deal in Hong Kong that then made it possible to sue Australia.

And somehow Philip Morris seemed to think they were the victims:

“The forced removal of [Philip Morris] brands and trademarks by the Australian Government is a clear violation of the terms of the bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong, and we believe we have a very strong case for actual damages that may amount to billions of Australian dollars.”

Most democratic societies have a system of checks and balances to prevent corruption and too much power concentrated in one area. These international trade agreements are creating cross-border super-systems that are too opaque with fantastic opportunities for corruption and concentrated power.

We are unable to vote for or against what’s being decided on our behalf by unelected people in far away places. They are making their own rules about some pretty important stuff – the environment, labor laws, culture, etc.

The game needs to be exposed so we can deal with it. The good news is that it is becoming clearer to see with deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP (“tee-tip”) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.

However we only know the details now because documents have been leaked, not because the information was made public.

Even our own elected leaders are unable to get involved in the details.

In a Politico report US officials behind TPP said that we can “expect the real horse-trading to begin now that Obama has signed “fast-track” legislation requiring Congress to pass or reject TPP without amendments.” 

Occupy-ers, if you were ever unsure of how you could bring your fighting spirit to something tangible, now is your moment.

The fight against TTIP and TPP is a symbolic move we can all make together to say, “Hang on, how is this decision getting made? Who is signing up to it and with what authority? Who is going to benefit and how? What happens if we don’t like it? Who will monitor it and tell us all if it’s working or not?”

The fight against international trade deals is a line in the sand between the new global powers and the people. Whoever wins is going to have a massive leg up in whatever comes next.

Have no illusions about what’s at stake – these kinds of trade deals are marginalizing democracy. You have a right to know what your country is deciding on your behalf. Given the scale of these deals I think we have a right to know what other countries are deciding on our behalf, too.

If it all feels too technical or inaccessible, then just start asking around…see if you can find anyone who understands it. Better yet, see if you can find someone who has read these agreements.

When you come up empty you may come to the same conclusion I did which is that whatever this is all about it’s not being done for the good of the public.

Let’s get a good look at these deals. Let’s run the proposed terms through ‘the system’. Of course ‘the system’ needs to change. It always will. It’s made by humans. And maybe there are provisions in the deals that we should consider.

But as it stands today TTIP and TPP and their legal weapons like ISDS look very much like people in positions of power using their advantages to lock down even more of it.

That’s not independent-thinking. That’s not improving ‘the system’. That’s not working in the interest of the public.

That’s worth challenging.

There are lots of ways to get involved. One thing you can do is help Vivienne Westwood and Contributoria to fuel the public debate. https://www.contributoria.com/proposals

At minimum, use this amazing thing called the Internet to educate yourself. This stuff matters.