Rights in Cyberspace

Speech by Gomma - Decoder magazine Italy
"New Visions" panel, Glasgow 5/8/94

I come from what could be called the province of the empire, and I've seen the dynamics of the technological transformation from a particular point of view that is particularily stimulating. After all, maybe, it's true what was said by the science fiction writer, Richard Kadrey: "Nothing interesting happens at the center. Everything interesting happens at the edges." In Italy just a few days ago, like an ugly Orwellian dream, Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of six television networks, became the prime minister. Someone could suspect that the Italian people have been transformed into a mass of television Zombies. In reality, the situation is not so simple, and it seems to be more dangerous than that of having a dictator from a cathode tube. That which has changed in Italy could happen in any country where modernity is adapted and passed on with its own crushing strength. The result of the political spectacle expresses the radical economic transformation of Italian society over the last 15 years. In fact, it has passed from an economic phase in which fordist factories had a central role in a productive situation of fragmentation, based on so-called autonomous workers who have a distinct economic outline, and a higher developed micro-management, diffused in the zones that were already developed in the previous economic phase. Therefore, this determined a global change of values, now turned into instances of desolidarization. This is where the failure of the traditional leftist parties fit in; they abandoned the main principles of work into the hands of the right, without knowing how they could have channeled the energies toward a democratic transformation of modern society.

People needed signals for the future, and that no one was giving it to them. And what happened is simple: on the edge of a completely transformed landscape, the capitalists who were more innovative, exactly like those who manage the television media, proposing the values of the future. Throughout a year Italy has changed into a country more Japanese than Japan, driven by a political corporation that promises over a million jobs, the solution of the economical crisis and the mythical bridge over the Sicilian channel. And in the spectacle of politics, incredibly everyone seems to believe. Everyone is content in believing in something and everyone is believing in a virtual future.

Is it a nightmare? No, it's a challenge. And every good cyberpunk loves challenges. And it probably would be better if the leftist parties also loved challenges.

My observatory is a publishing cooperative, called ShaKe, in which I work and experiment 12 hours a day. We publish a magazine called Decoder, we have an objective of publishing 8 books and 2 videos per year. We manage a BBS with around a thousand users and a computer network with 18 nodes. We organize multimedia installations, and parties that we call media-parties, in which the objective is to put technology like computers, videocams and anything that works over telephone lines, at the disposal of the people coming to the party. This programme is called "All technology to the people". In a country with the largest concentration of commercial television in the world, our latest project is to partecipate in the construction of community television in Milano, and to construct a network of similar experiences that are being born in Italy. Our objective is to give cultural instruments for the survival in the post-industrial phase, and the production of a social sense that crosses the use of the new media. The ShaKe cooperative has become in a brief time and with great surprise a point of reference not only for the italian digital underground, but also for many people who work in the field of informatics and information. For example journalists of informatic magazines, who can't write their reviews on what they really think of hardware and software because the journals they work for will lose advertisement money; television operators, frustated by years of 14-hour-a-day work, producing useless TV programmes; programmers/peones, paid two pounds an hour, who have lost the sense of life. This is happening all over the world with experiences like ours. This seems particulary important. All of this scene, in which the ShaKe belongs too, some people called it cyberpunk, or social-hacking, the edge, media-activism, but the best definitions seems to be that of culture jamming.

"Jamming is CB slang for the illegal practise of interrupting radio broadcast or conversation between fellows hams with lip farts and obscenities. Culture jamming, by contrast, is directed against an ever more intrusive, instumental technoculture whose operant mode is the manufacture of consent through the manipulation of symbols. CJ is an elastic category and accomodates a multitude of subcultural practices. Outlaw computer hacking with the intent of exposing institutionl wrongdoing, pirate TV and radio broacasting, non conventional artists, in a word all the people who are attempting to reclaim the public space ceded to the chimeras of Hollywood, to restore a sense of equilibrium to a society sickened by the vertiginous whirl of TV culture."
In addition, culture jamming formed an area of intellectuals and operators, of thinkers and experimenters who see the underground positively. This is the first time since the 60's that a young counterculture has moved this close to the requests of the society in general, from the world of work and from the production of the sense. In the 70's and 80's the counterculture was separated from the civil society by its own need, but this has brought ghettoisation. In the 90's is mutated radically. And it assists a great creative phase united with the want of a transformation of the existing circumstances. This is happened for a series of reasons. Probably Hakim Bey was right in his book TAZ when he said that since 1899 there has not been a square centimeter of territory that isn't submmitted to by some kind of national sovereignity and this fact has determined the end of the possibilities to find a zone on the planet where we can go and install our utopia. This process that Bey calls the closure of the map or the end of the frontier, has blocked our capacity to imagine new potentials for thought and action. But modern times and the dynamics of productions has created a new frontier, a new place where we can give life to our dreams: the electronic frontier or cyberspace: "this is the place where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside our actual phone, the plastic device on our desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. It's the place between the phones. The indefinite place out there, where two human beings actually meet and communicate. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s the world of the telephone has crossbred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own."

In this new territory, like it was in the Far West, the law when it exists isn't very clear and often only the strongest survives. Like this the deviance and crime seem to be necessary in a paradoxical situation where the largest potential number of access to the means of information in reality corresponds to a great lack in the sharing of communication. The breaking of the hypothetical rules of cyberspace was used like a simbolic element to demonstrate that we will not have to support the rules imposed by the media for all of our lives. And the frustated white collars which I spoke earlier were in reality the first to consider the hackers as the heros of a new era. But, the most important thing is that the digital deviance and the transgression in the way to use new media have opened topportunities for everyone for more demo and access. I believe, actually, despite the criminalizing campaign of the media, that the most interesting side is the problem that these creative crimes put into the sphere of civil rights. I believe that the digital underground or the the culture jammers must take responsability today to give the world that is waiting, a signal or a sign of maturity. I think that now is the moment to fight for the recognization of our rights to have a stable structure for the transmission, the access, and the conservation of the information of social relevance. In the electronic we have no need of martyrs, like how hackers often become. I recall that European Community made a new law, on the duplication of software and computer crimes in general, that favoures the corporations and limits our freedom in cyberspace. I believe this historical moment is the right moment to affirm the new fudamental right of man, similar to the right of having a house or a job, but in relation to information.

The most important point is now the affermation of our nomadic identity against the ancient concept of nationality. We must state our identity as travellers of cyberspace fighting for the constitution of an International Public Network that enables digital transmission between diverse countries, putting anyone into communication whith anyone who wants to communicate any kind of information that isn't commercial. These structures have to be paied for by the government to guarantee access that cost nothing or at a very low price. The guarantee of low cost access is also a guarantee of democracy but, at the moment in Europe the access to Internet is too limited by the burocreacy or from the high costs. We also need to fight for the social use of the channels of communications, like ISDN lines, that will permit transporting enormous quantities of information without high costs of installation. An International Public Network that would utilize ISDN could give us the opportunities in an instant, to construct editorial projects or videos with conributors from all over the world.

The new represented by information technology consists of the fact that the information is totally digitalizable and easily conserved and trasmitted. Besides, its use is plastic and multimedial. As the nature of information is mutated, so the laws, the norms and the rights that rule the whole sector must change. The approach given by the new international laws was, on the contrary, based on rules of a gutemberghian concept. We observed the european law assimilate to the american law, created by the pressure of the software corporation that enormously limit the possibility of the use of the information even if this possibility is intrisic to the digital media. So we have to fight to affirm the right to copy for individual usage, to stress the social use, and the exchange of information without any kind of frontier or limit. In reality, the current laws don't guarantee the correct economical acknoledgement to the indipendent subjects that work with the diverse product of communications. Infact these laws essentially protect the rights of the large trusts and major companies. It's important to recall for the people who still believe that there is a chance of another american gold rush, that this experience could only happen in brief periods of capitalism, and was generally finished during the 30's. Bill Gates and Microsoft confirm this kind of analysis: in 1981 the game was over and the experimentation with a "basic for the people" programming was absorbed by big capital. We want ask for the decriminalization of copying and we want to rouse an exchange in the process of the construction of the information between free an equal subjects. In the same time, we want to facilitate and protect shareware programmers that had their products stolen and patented by big companies.

The right to copy allows to realize strategies of psychic survival in front of the society of the spectacle and concretly affirming that the right to information is an ontological right of the social human being in this era. So we propose the construction of public libraries of images where we can copy any kind of visual material, with the possibility of manipulating it into any form. These libraries of images could be located in special sections of libraries, or they could have a seat in Internet and be accessable from any part of the world. According to the american associations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that are working at this moment on the problem, we want it to be guaranteed furthermore the most complete privacy of the electronic mail and of the general communicative exchange by using programs of encription like PGP. We refuse options like the Clipper chip, that would without doubt give space for abuse from the government. We ask for the abolition for every form of censorship regarding the exchange of information in general, and the electronic communication in particular, consiudering this as a direct expression of the personal opinion of every citizen.

These are our proposals, but it will not be easy to realize them. If from one side the process of subsumption of the individual creativity has still not reached its apex, from the other side the same proposals could represent some objective limits and obstacles for our experiences. The contradictions regarding the actual managment of the knowledge will explode at the moment in which these limits will be felt by a majority of the operators in the communication field. So our future is still not clear and nothing is certain. We are only at the beginning of a long process that still not disclosed in a complete manner. We can look from the window or accept the challence of modern times and put ourselves in continuos discussion also in respect to our own identity and live an adventure that menaces to destroy that we have and everything that we are. We choose to accept the risk of the second hypothesis, and with optimism we are already on our way.