The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, By Heather Brooke<br/>Barefoot in to Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of techno-Utopia, By Becky Hogge

What is the cost of free information?

Reviewed,Lisa Gee
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:55

Heather Brooke and Becky Hogge are (or in Hogge's case, were) freedom of information activists.

Brooke is, famously, the investigative journalist whose determined ferreting triggered the MPs' expenses scandal.

She was also a key player in mainstream press coverage of the WikiLeaked US diplomatic cables. Hogge led the Open Rights Group for two years, withdrawing disillusioned with the UK and European political process, which she compares to a "group of people trying to decide how to direct rush hour traffic by playing an arcane version of cricket".

Both balance excitement about the internet's potential to make our world a better, fairer place against concerns for loss of privacy and, most acutely, the personal safety of activists challenging powers-that-be. Brooke is more upbeat, techno-Utopian even, proposing that "instead of re-engineering the internet to fit around unpopular laws and unpopular leaders, we could re-engineer our political structures to mirror the internet ... We can create the first global democracy. Hundreds of millions of people are climbing out of poverty ... They can join a worldwide conversation and come together in infinite permutations to check power anywhere it concentrates."

Except, according to Hogge, most people don't. She quotes the US "hackademic" Ethan Zuckerberg on how "the web is ploughing us deeper into our cultural furrows" with users experiencing "a kind of imaginary cosmopolitanism" instead of genuine, cross-cultural connection. More sinisterly, as Brooke explains, our use of digital technology creates "a handy one-stop shop for the nosy official". US and European laws require all mobile communications networks to "include an interception capability": this made it simple for Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian intelligence services to locate and arrest many pro-democracy protestors earlier this year.

Both authors look to hacker communities for the skills and determination to crack such oppression. As a rule, hackers act. If they don't like something, they try to build something better, be it hardware, software or society. They don't do red tape. Their collective attitude is one of empowerment cut with mischief – an enticing contrast to Hogge's wading-through-treacle Westminster-and-Brussels experience.

The WikiLeaks story – featured in both books – demonstrates both what can be achieved if you combine coding know-how with the drive to justice, and the capacity of governments to dodge the consequences of their actions. Across 2010, WikiLeaks, with the evolving support of the international mainstream press, hosted leaked video footage, war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and US diplomatic cables. Brooke and Hogge highlight how quickly the US government deflected attention from this evidence of "torture, summary executions and war crimes" (The Guardian) to, in Brooke's phrase, the "speculative blood" that might be shed as a result of releasing such information into the public domain.

Brooke tussles with the ethics of publication, and how journalists can counter charges that publishing such material is irresponsible. Hogge – whose book traces the hacker ethos back to its hippy roots – also focuses on why we (herself included) are so easily distracted and discouraged from action. Both inevitably encounter the WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange. This being the aspect of Brooke's book that has attracted the most publicity (including a spin-off US e-publication) I'll mention only that, rather than engaging with Brooke as an equal, Assange flirts embarrassingly and asserts that women aren't as driven as men.

Gender issues play a part throughout: 95 per cent of the participants at the Chaos Communication Conferences Hogge attends are male; the Guardian "bunker" to which Brooke is summoned to work on the leaked diplomatic cables was, until her arrival, "a solidly male environment"; and one of her coder contacts describes hackers as "a bunch of alpha geeks – macho, misogynist, thuggish". Authors aside, the only significant female player here is Birgitta Jonsdottir, the MP behind the revolutionary Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. If it's too late for us, we should ensure our daughters learn to code.

Brooke dramatises parts of her narrative, an approach that adds pace and feels authentic when derived from her own interviews. But her character based on Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of passing classified materials to WikiLeaks, and drawn from sources in the public domain, is less successful. Her attribution of motivations, thoughts and emotions to someone she hasn't had direct contact with feels questionable.

Digital technology has enabled Hogge and a team of skilled volunteers to "flash publish" Barefoot into Cyberspace. Production standards are high, but I can't imagine an in-house editor letting her end her book with someone else's words, even though Rop Gonggrijp's keynote address to the 2010 Chaos Communications Conference is highly pertinent. On the other hand, it dovetails with her questioning, uncertain approach: the perfect complement to Brooke's surefooted, campaigning rhetoric.

Each book makes for a demanding, illuminating read and together they build a 3D picture of digital-age ethics, the politics of freedom of speech and information and, consequently, of the state of contemporary freedoms per se. A call to arms in an information war, the victors of which will, according to Brooke, determine whether "we build a new type of democracy [or] a new type of totalitarianism".

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