Leakonomics: Edward Snowden and the Pirates

Leakonomics: Edward Snowden and the Pirates

Leakonomics: Edward Snowden and the Pirates

Bounties on the mutineers demonstrate the limits of transparency.


People forget where metaphors come from, that they are metaphors to begin with. Consider pitch-black, colored by a shipbuilding tradition wherein wooden boats were deemed seaworthy once thoroughly caulked with black pitch against any leaks. And leak itself is, in its familiar contemporary uses, a metaphor too.

When an album leaks online, what leaks is data, and that data means dollars. Each file, in the industry’s pleadings, means some amount of profit lost. In the digital era, US music sales have contracted from around $14 billion to $7 billion annually. This is not to say the rich stakeholders have ceased getting richer. Still, that “lost” profit is equal to five times the nation’s annual support for Egypt.

Well before these developments, Stewart Brand’s dictum “Information wants to be free” confounded the economic and the political senses; the ambiguity falls on the last word. The computer programmer Richard Stallman has tried to tease the two categories apart as “a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’ ” A political, not an economic, freedom.

But as becomes clear with the music industry—canary in the pop-product coal mine—this theoretical distinction erodes swiftly in practice. When you can limit a commodity’s freedom of movement, you can charge for it. When you can’t, this becomes more of a challenge. If you could download beer, its price would likely plummet.

Moreover, there is the Pirate story. The Pirate Bureau (2003–10) was a Swedish collective akin to Stallman’s Free Software Foundation—but more fun. It spun off the website the Pirate Bay, which gathers “torrent trackers”: small metadata files that allow a home user to grab and assemble files bit by bit from multiple hosts across the web and around the world. Torrent trackers enable the efficient downloading of leaked media, but from no one in particular. The Pirate Bay doesn’t host the copyrighted files, which, its founders argue, protects them from criminal charges.

Not everyone agrees. The correspondence between the Pirate Bay and attorneys for various corporate and state entities is often posted by the renegade Swedes themselves. If one reserves little sympathy for capitalists and their minions and enjoys a witty riposte, it’s a bracing read.

In 2006, a software entrepreneur unassociated with the Pirate Bureau founded the Pirate Party and immediately turned to defending the Pirate Bay, causes célèbres following a massive raid. Pirate Party candidates began to gain significant votes here and there: two seats in the European Parliament, follow-on victories across the map. Their most notable success has been in Iceland, a nation recently familiarized with digital commodities and immaterial flows: during the first decade of the millennium, the nation’s three largest banks came to hold more than €50 billion in foreign debt, north of €160,000 per citizen. When the banking sector collapsed, so did the government, setting the stage for extensive reshuffling. This year, the newly formed Icelandic Pirate Party won three seats in the national parliament, the oldest parliament in the world (self-proclaimed). In early July, the Pirate Party trio introduced a bill to grant Edward Snowden citizenship.

And with that, the two great metaphorical senses of “leak” purled together: the free beer of pop’s petty piracies and the freed speech of classified data. Neither the media conglomerate’s digital cargo vessels nor the ship of the security state can remain pitch-black. Information wants to leak.

One needn’t mistake the scofflaw downloader for a freedom fighter. Nor should we be quick to romanticize “hackers” in general—largely a compensatory fantasy for a widening class of exploited tech workers. There is great pleasure in the conjoining of these streams nonetheless, and their shared underlying project, intended or not: making the immaterial communal.

Snowden’s risks and revelations are of a different order from those of your casual Yeezus bootlegger. We know now that the present administration is the most invasive and least transparent on national record; apologists on any grounds stand exposed as aggressive defenders of unfreedom. The significance of Snowden’s leaks seems to place a primacy on the political rather than the economic mode. Free speech sure sounds nobler than free beer.

But is this the case? “Transparency” has acquired a universal charisma. Not only is it the president’s most cherished and hypocritical claim; it is a value trumpeted across the data industry, across the political spectrum. It became one of the few demands that could unify Occupy. Everybody loves transparency.

Opacity deserves not the slightest defense. But there are real limits to the fetish of transparency. Let’s say we expose the entire security apparatus. Further, let’s say we bring transparency to the finance sector, to the economy’s underlying structure. Let’s say that we bring into clear view the truth that the freedom to sell your labor in the marketplace—a political freedom—is quite limited indeed. As long as our access to food and shelter requires us to make this sale to stay alive but does not require the same of our counterparties, this is not a freedom at all but an absolute compulsion. No tearing back the veil, no amount of transparency, can unmake it.

Free speech and transparency are not ends: they matter insofar as actual freedom flows from them. Meanwhile, freedom from economic compulsion will do the trick far more directly. Free beer and free files, freely given, would be a start, a small one. We need to commence emancipating burritos. And houses. It’s not a metaphor.

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