Documentaries

Will the Internet Give Rise to a New Totalitarianism?

"Black Code" explores the dark underbelly of our virtual existence.

Photo Credit: Mercury Films

If you're reading this post, odds are you spend a sizable portion of your day on the Internet. Based on a 2013 book of the same name, the documentary "Black Code" (2016) explores the "dark side" of our virtual existence, or as its author Ronald J. Deibert dubs it, "big data meets Big Brother."

"I started this film because reading Ron Deibert’s book was hugely revelatory," "Black Code" director Nicholas de Pencier told the Globe and Mail. "And then Snowden dropped, and all of a sudden everyone was talking about this."

Obama-era internet privacy protections are slowly being rolled back, with Trump signing into a law a resolution that will allow ISPs to collect and sell customers' data to third parties without their consent. According to TechCrunch, "[It's] a blow to anyone who’d prefer not to put their browsing history on blast, and a major victory for advertisers hungry for all of the de-anonymized personal data that they can vacuum up and dole out."

"My worry is: With these very structures, these unprecedented possibilities of surveillance and control of all of our communications and activities—does this new architecture and infrastructure itself bend somehow towards our lesser angels, our totalitarian instincts?" asked de Pencier. "If you’re in power in a complicated world, can we really trust the corporate executives or the elected officials to resist the temptation to access that information?"

"Black Code" examines underreported cases from around the world to help illustrate this growing trend.

"What we see are acts of war committed against citizens," Deibert says in the film. "Getting inside the computers of Tibetans and then arresting them and possibly executing them is a kind of act of war." 

According to Human Rights Watch, "authorities have turned the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) into a new kind of surveillance state, [giving it] unprecedented access to individual homes, lives, and to some extent, their thoughts."

TAR residents are subject to interrogation over their political and religious views by any of the 21,000 officials collecting information and monitoring their behavior.

"I have heard the Chinese government can blacklist and then monitor a certain phone number," notes Tibetan monk Kanyag Tsering, overlooking piles of burner phones. "If your phone is blacklisted, they may find you and interrogate you."

"Black Code" screens in the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 15 in New York City. 

Watch:  

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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