I used to think that the history of the internet began with people like Tim Berners-Lee; plucky tech nuts with an innocent, grass roots passion for technological advancement. There are many such stories in internet folk-lore that would have us think that the internet is a Utopian entity; one where democracy, ingenuity and equality prevail, a fresh start for the new post-war batch of humanity with the very best of intentions. I remember having to give a presentation at school on Google and learning how Larry Page and Sergey Brin had gone from being two boys in a garage to the billionaire overlords of information. They were the American cyber-dream incarnate. Such fantasies are destroyed in Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.
Not only does the book delicately disassemble – with extreme prejudice – the widely held ideas of why, when and where the internet came into being, but it also shows us how its functionality and priorities have scarcely shifted ever since its embryonic status as the US militaries wet dream.
‘The truth is that the Internet came out of a Pentagon project to develop modern communication and information systems that would allow the United States to get the drop on its enemies, both at home and abroad. That effort was a success, exceeding all expectations. So, of course, the US government leveraged the technology it had created, and keeps leveraging it to the max. How could it not?’Yasha Levine – Surveillance Valley
The book traces the money, the history and the people that birthed the internet for the battlefield. It tells us of the human “computers” who ticked the boxes for tracking the flight paths of bombs, of how tribes in the far reaches of Thailand were beaten, their harvests destroyed and families torn apart so that a file on the tactics of the downtrodden could be uploaded to a growing network of data. Everything they would learn in the war-zones of South East Asia would be giddily shipped back home, where potential customers – and potential threats – were just begging to get the internet treatment.
Levine makes a point of mapping the libertarian ideologues who clung to the Utopian dream of a free internet inspired society. Some turned on their beliefs, others burned out, and then there were those sucked into the gravitational pull of the surveillance state. Most stunning in this regard, we find out how even anti-government titans such as Edward Snowden use and promote software funded by the CIA. It turns out that Tor, the encryption software behind the people trafficking, child porn hosting, hitman-hiring Silk Road has enough government contracts to sink a VPN cloaked battleship.
Perhaps most poignantly for recent debate and the Huawei chapter of the US trade war with China – evidence of the allegiance “private” enterprise has to domestic and foreign policy – we learn that the US government did not privatise the internet in the interests of the free market, but instead to put some space between them and a cynical public waking up to the true intentions of the internet’s prototype, the ‘ARPANET’ – an early collection of computer networks that allowed the government to collect and monitor civilian data in the interests of defending and promoting the capitalist, imperial goals of the Pentagon. Instead of gathering the information outright, private companies were offered a thin slice of internet pie in return for supplying information about their customers through the backdoor. Sound familiar?
Evidence of companies making their data available to the surveillance state is by now unmissable, there are new stories every week. The fears we now have are the same as those who rejected the invasive action of ARPA in the 70’s, only much more widely held, so why are they still getting away with it? Levine details the numerous public relations smokescreens deployed to convince us that the freedom we enjoy online in the west runs parallel to that which we enjoy IRL. Perhaps it is even more simple than that. By now we are all so aware that our movements are tracked that we are ambivalent. At least we can have Twitter, Facebook and read the New York Times, unlike them over there.
As we walk down this secret path of internet history with Levine it’s easy to feel lost. Positive changes to the real world feel more tangible than those which could make the internet a fairer, less invasive entity. Surveillance Valley doesn’t hold the answer, but what it asks us to see is that the internet is not in our hands, and it has had the same master since its inception. Levine also makes sure that we are aware of the dangers of the other side to that coin. An unrestricted, free internet has all the pitfalls of an unregulated society. What and how we regulate is difficult territory. There are those that will protect their ideological stakes in the possibilities of the internet perhaps just as much if not more resolutely than billionaires will protect their coin. A fundamental, all encompassing rethink of the internet is needed, and the first step is disarmament. A less militaristic internet should be a priority, and to have that, we must first have less militaristic governance.