Earlier this week, a group of 10-30 people descended on Google HQ in Mountain View, California. They were armed with tents, canopies and foldable tables. They called themselves “Occupy Google.”
The protesters were there to stand up for a Free Internet, and were prepared to squat on Google property however long it took.
“We are committed to occupying the Google Headquarters until the company gets involved in honest dialogue on net neutrality, and until real action is taken to maintain a free and open internet,” Occupy Google declared on its website.
The occupation didn’t last very long. On Google’s orders, a pack of Mountain View police officers descended on the tiny encampment after dark and broke the whole thing up quietly and efficiently, eventually hauling ten protesters off to jail for trespassing on private property. Occupy Google started and ended in a blur of confusion, before anyone could even figure out what had happened.
Who were these people? What exactly did they want? And why were they trying to get Google to back Net Neutrality, when the megacorp already more or less supported it? But what made these anti-Google activists even more of a riddle: they declared that they weren’t actually protesting Google.
“Though many of us have concerns about the larger implications of Google’s effect on the world, as far as surveillance and ties to military technology, we are not here to protest Google.”
Indeed, Occupy Google framed their fight for net neutrality in a totally pro-Google way.
Occupy Google’s online statement of purpose painted telecom companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T as the ultimate enemy of free speech on the Internet. Silicon Valley megacorps like Google and Facebook, on the other hand, were on our side, and apparently needed only to be nudged in the right direction:
“ISPs have something that companies like Facebook and Google don’t – direct control over your physical connection to the Internet. Now that there are no legal restraints to stop them, ISPs are free to monitor everything you do and say online, and sell your information to the highest bidder.
… “Google, with its immense power, has a social responsibility to uphold the values of the internet. We encourage Google to engage in a serious, honest dialogue on the issue of net neutrality and to stand with us in support of an internet that is free from censorship, discrimination, and access fees.”
So was Occupy Google a Silicon Valley astroturf protest? Or were they a bunch of well meaning dupes who had fallen for Google’s “don’t be evil” PR? Did they actually think the interests of Google — an opaque multibillion for-profit surveillance company that wants to control as much of the world’s digital infrastructure as possible — are somehow aligned with the interests the average person?
I called Occupy Google to find out who they are and what they stand for.
Occupy Google’s press liaison is a guy named Zaigham, who came out of Occupy San Francisco and who now works doing sales for a tech company. He seemed like a nice guy, and I got the sense that he and his comrades meant well. Best of all, Zaigham flattered me by saying that he was a fan of my reporting on Surveillance Valley and that it was a big inspiration for Occupy Google.
But after talking to him, however, I was left with the feeling that corporations couldn’t have invented more perfect “protester” dupes if they tried.
* * *
Occupy Google is a small group of ten or twenty people who are mostly vets of Occupy San Francisco. They decided that an open and free Internet was a huge issue that needed to be addressed. “The Occupy Movement is so connected to the Internet,” said Zaigham. “A lot of people called it the Internet generation coming out to the street. The Internet was so fundamental in organizing Arab Spring and Occupy and Anonymous was such a big part of Occupy.”
So the seed for Occupy Google was planted…
“We started thinking about how we would organize around this issue. There’s an FCC office in Pleasanton. And someone brought up Google, and then it just kind a clicked. It would be a much bigger action. Google is at the center of the Internet. They’re also probably the most important center of power and influence in the Bay Area. They seemed like a natural target rather than the FCC headquarters in Pleasanton.”
They believed that Google was not doing enough to support net neutrality, so they wanted to nudge the megacorp into the right direction:
“We wanted to put them on the spot. For the SOPA strike, they put out the petition and blacked out their logo — which was really helpful in stopping the SOPA bill in congress. To get them to do something like that could be pretty productive. Google is becoming such a powerful center of power and influence in the Bay Area and the world, and they have all this information about everybody and ties to the military industrial complex.”
What are Occupy Google’s demands?
Instead of coming out there with straight demands, we wanted to start a dialogue and figure out a way to bring people together. Really raise awareness in the media and America — for people to take action on Net Neutrality and Internet freedom in general.
The Internet is such a tool for social liberation and democratizing power, but it can also be this massive tool for state control and surveillance. We want to draw a line in the sand and for people to step up — and choose one of those paths for the Internet and make it Internet freedom…challenging the establishment’s use of the Internet as a massive surveillance tool, as well. It’s kinda how I look at it.
…Anytime you organize something like this, you have a lot of different people with different ideas and ideologies coming into it, so I can only speak for myself and maybe another couple of others, so…
Start a dialogue? Raise awareness? I was taken aback by the vagueness and almost cowardly blandness of their demands. This is a group of people willing to get arrested for their beliefs, and all they wanted Google to do was start “a conversation”?
Maybe a little background is helpful here. The public might be confused about the whole net neutrality issue but there’s really not much to discuss or have a conversation about. It’s all about regulating monopolies.
Yep, monopolies. That’s what ISPs are. Like owners of private roads or railroads, ISPs control the physical lines connecting people to the digital world. Today, just a handful of megacompanies have control over much of America’s digital infrastructure. In many places in America, even dense urban zones, customers have only one company to “choose” from.
Where I live in Santa Monica, located in one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country, TimeWarner Cable pretty much had a total monopoly on Internet service. That changed recently with FIOS coming in, but the two companies have set exactly the same rates on services. So there’s still no real choice.
ISPs have a captive market and have been pushing to exploit that control to charge whatever they want — not only on the consumer side, but on the producer side as well. Earlier this year, FCC’s net neutrality rules were struck down by a court, giving ISPs the legal go ahead to slowdown, block, prioritize or charge extra for certain Internet services and website traffic.
The reason for why the FCC’s net neutrality rules were invalidated can be traced back to a single factor: the agency’s decision to sell out to corporate interests and classify ISPs as “information services” rather than “telecommunication services,” a seemingly arcane change made during the Bush years that exempted ISPs from being regulated as utilities.
Reclassifying them as telecommunication services, which the FCC could unilaterally do this very instant if it wasn’t stacked with sleazy, revolving door ISP lobbyists, is the first necessary step in regulating ISPs as monopolies and guaranteeing so-called Internet freedom — on both the consumer and producer ends of the Internet.
ISPs are fighting hard against being regulated by the FCC like the monopolies they are. It seems like Google is not too excited by the prospect, either. The company’s been aggressively expanding its Google Fiber ISP network. And anyway, the word monopoly makes Google shudder. So it’s not surprising the company hasn’t shown much zeal in pushing the FCC to enact real net neutrality rules.
Zaigham — and some others at Occupy Google — clearly understood that. He wondered out loud if Google Fiber was a reason why the company only lukewarmly supported strong net neutrality. And he agreed that reclassifying ISPs as telecommunications services was the only real way to move forward.
So why was Occupy Google so vague and fuzzy in its demands? Why not challenge Google to support reclassifying and regulating ISPs as public utilities?
There seem to be two reasons: For one thing, many of the Occupy Googlers lean anti-state. They are anarchists, dig Republican Ron Paul’s antiwar positions and are skeptical of government regulation.
But then there’s this weird twist: A tech lobby funded by Google and Silicon Valley helped Occupy Google crafted their “messaging” on net neutrality.
Here’s the relevant part of our conversation:
Zaigham: The only way to reinstate [net neutrality] is to reclassify internet service providers as telecommunication services.
Me: Why don’t you make that a point that you highlight and focus on?
Zaigham: [Pause] Yeah, that’s a problem. I see. [a nervous laugh] Like I said, in these movements, people have different ideas of what to do. And some people decided… And even we talked to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and what they told us was instead of asking for the how to get there, to talk about the big picture. Free from discrimination. Free from blocking. Free from access fees.
I was personally one of the people pushing for a very specific call to reclassify [ISPs as a utility].Me: And there were people who opposed that?Zaigham: Yeah, there was. People wanted to be focused more on the end goal and end result. What kind Internet we want to see.
Me: You know, it’s funny. I mean, who doesn’t want an open Internet? Is there someone says, “No, we must have it closed?”
Zaigham: Ha ha.
Me: Why were some in your group resisting making calls for specific implementations [like getting the gov to reclassify ISPs as public utilities]?
Zaigham: I think some of the people are more skeptical about maybe asking government for…I don’t know.”
Me: Were they skeptical of the government…of government power?
Zaigham: Yeah, maybe that’s what it was. Yeah.
Me: So they wanted the private sector to regulate itself for the benefit of mankind?
Zaigham: No, they’re not like libertarian in that sense. They are maybe more anarchist…anti-capitalist anarchists.
Me: It’s a strange, a kind of strange thing to ask — if you’re an anti-capitalist — for one of the most capitalist internet companies in the fucking world to support your anarchist ideals.
Zaigham: Ha-ha. Yeah, it is. Ha-ha. [Nervous laughter]
Me: I don’t mean to be flippant about it. But you know what I mean?
It’s a sad day when anti-capitalist anarchists believe in free-market self-regulation and think that an Internet controlled by a handful of megacorps can ever be “free,” whatever that even means. But perhaps the most ridiculous part of all this is that anti-capitalists are taking direction from a capitalist-funded think tank like the EFF.
Maybe the folks of Occupy Google didn’t know, but EFF’s taken money directly from Google for a long time, including a $1 million injection in 2011 that represented nearly one fifth of the outfit’s revenue. In 2012, EFF was caught shilling for its donor during Google’s patent fight with Oracle.
And now EFF, which amazingly is able to maintain its indie cred, is consulting Occupy Google on PR and messaging. “EFF wasn’t really involved, we just had a chance to talk to one of the EFF folks. We didn’t mention the details of our action. We talked to them about actual messaging and how we should message the call for net neutrality,” said Zaigham.
It’s a comic, Justine Tunney-level of radicalism. And it shows the confusion and impotence of today’s Occupy anarchist protester-types against corporate power.
At some point, Zaigham leveled with me:
Honestly, Yasha I wanted it to be more focused on Google and what your articles were talking about. That’s what I personally wanted it to be. What Google is doing to world is just as important as net neutrality. I’m talking about the Pentagon contracts, the surveillance and how that ties into the fact that they have all this information and everybody and now they are going to be dependent on government contacts and department of defense contracts.
And to me that’s more important — or just as important. And the fact that it is such a monolithic omnipotent organization that’s pervading our lives more than any other company in the world. And the fact that we have an opportunity to hold them accountable and shine a light upon them, that to me was a big part of this action. And maybe some other people involved, too. It gets complicated when you’re organizing a lot of different minds and different people and they are all in it for different reason.
That’s cool and all. But what’s the point of launching an “inclusive” political protest against concentrated tech power if that dumbs your goals to useless things like “starting a dialogue”? And anyway, if Occupy Google already managed to sell out and compromise on its political objectives when it was only ten people strong, it probably shouldn’t exist anyway.
None of which of course matters a damn. Google’s message to Occupy Google was loud and clear: Get off our lawn you fucking anarchist hippies.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]