Civil liberties in the network society

In yesterday’s post I reflected on how battles for civil liberties were ways for people with less power to try and gain more power.  This is a fairly mainstream sociological perspective on power and the reasons that people engage in collective action. Today I’m going to ask how this changes in a network society.  The theorist of social movements Alberto Melucci writes in his book Challenging Codes that, “a social movement is an actor engaged in a conflict directly or indirectly affecting the distribution of power within a society.”  But I’d like to know:  is there some finite amount of power?  If so, where are the places where it is most concentrated?  What are today’s most significant struggles?

If we think of our society as being characterized by 1.  relationships structured by/through networked forms and networked infrastructures and 2. the high value placed on information, then it is easier to see why today’s struggles over power involve things like media reform and privacy.  Colin Bennett (among other privacy advocates) looks at how privacy is framed as a civil liberties issue.  He writes in The Privacy Advocates that “the protection of privacy has always featured prominently within the agendas of civil liberties organizations, historically concerned with the legitimate boundaries between the individual and state and with the protection of citizens from abuses of power” (p. 35).  One limitation of this perspective, as Bennet notes, is that it focuses on individual rights rather than collective (civil) rights.  We could imagine this perspective as a shield preventing the powerful state from abusing the powerless individual.

Maybe its possible to think of the individual – or the collective – as having power that can be disruptive.  Manuel Castells argues that any exercise of power also produces “counter-power.”  Any oppression produces resistance.  For example, the consolidation of global capital and information that the internet made possible was balanced out by the development of new social movements that opposed that power using the tools provided (the internet, global interaction).  Now that more of society can be thought of as working like a network, this power/counterpower relationship is developing.  Some of the important questions are:  who figures out how networks of influence and networks of infrastructure are going to operate?  Who makes the rules?

Developing counter-power that restructures how networks work is a good way of framing why media reform has become a big issue — and even why technical standards and protocols are becoming objects of political discussion.  But one of the big challenges of understanding power – and civil liberties – in a network society is actually determining where counterpower or resistance should be directed.  Castells claims that a pressing question is: “against whom do I revolt”?

This is exactly why issues of privacy and media reform are becoming more thorny.  It’s not simply a question of shielding individuals from the burly oppression of the state.  Many forms of power are ways of controlling our uncertainty about the world, and even a surveillance state can do that (the argument for surveillance cameras is often that they make people safer, as everyone is being watched).  It’s a question of determining *where* abuses of power come from -in the multi-layered networks of infrastructure, content, finance, and politics – and *how* to use the same networks to disconnect or route around those abuses.