Features & Columns
Breaking the Internet: 'Killswitch' Screens at Cinequest
We want everything in the whole wide world from the World Wide Web. We want information at our fingertips, and, yet, we want our information kept private. We want to connect openly with friends on social media, and feel that those awful little memories of social embarrassment that keep you awake in the night didn't really matter after all. We want both freedom and safety, and the vast machineries of government spying revealed by Edward Snowden show us that we have neither. And as the net morphs from an information and communication delivery system to one that tracks and manages our physical movements, our cars, our thermostats, our bank transactions and our heart beats, the questions of who controls and has access to that data becomes even more acute.
Killswitch, a festival-lauded documentary from the team of Ali Akbarzadeh and Jeffrey Horn arriving at Cinequest, examines the efforts to squelch the Internet in the name of fighting terrorists and content pirates. Currently, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is pushing to regulate the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934—a move dreaded by bandwidth providers nationwide.
Net neutrality is the main focus of the three-and a half years in the making documentary Killswitch. I talked to Akbarzadeh and Horn via phone as they headed to LAX to show their movie at the Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington DC. They had been invited to the capitol by Congressman Alan Grayson, who would be sharing the podium with Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and Craig Aaron, president of Free Press.
Killswitch premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival, where it won a well-deserved award for best editing. It has some of the most lapidary use of found footage this side of The Atomic Cafe. It has played at 15 different festivals, and is coming to the valley as part of the 25th annual Cinequest.
The timing couldn't be better for a documentary on the encirclement of the Internet. President Barack Obama recently convened a summit on cybersecurity at Stanford, and Citizenfour —the first-person story of the Snowden revelations—just won the best documentary Oscar.
Among the vintage images of computers in their infancy, three main voices make up the interviews in Killswitch. The first is former valley engineer and current professor of law at Columbia, Tim Wu, who first coined the phrase "Internet Neutrality" and who delivered a TED talk on its importance. Second is Harvard professor Lessig, who recalls his own friendship with Aaron Swartz. Third is philosophy professor and New York Times writer Peter Ludlow—the latter, in profane language, spells out the importance of what's at stake when the openness and neutrality of the web are left unprotected: "We need to find out what the fuck is going on."
The efforts to contain the young Internet began in 1986, after the film War Games scared Congress into the passing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for fear of first-generation hackers with 300 baud modems starting World War III. This resulted in the now-familiar software license agreements we regularly click to accept without reading—leaving ourselves open to prosecution for felonies without even knowing it. (You may already be a felon, as Ludlow notes, if you're under 18 and you click your acceptance of Seventeen magazine's terms of service.)
Horn surveys two of the major stories in the fight over privacy and surveillance. The first is the story of Aaron Swartz, profiled in the documentary The Internet's Own Boy, now available for download. Schwarz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment while facing dozens of felony charges for hacking JSTOR, which conceals more than 5 million scientific and academic papers behind a paywall. Scholars—and as Killswitch points out, scholars in the third world—had to pay huge prices to access work produced by prestigious universities. The prodigious Schwarz, who helped develop RSS protocols and founded Infogami, a site that merged with Reddit, felt he had "a moral imperative" to free the knowledge locked up for profit.
The Edward Snowden case is better known and Killswitch glides through it (with clips from Citizenfour). Horn isn't as close to the story as Citizenfour's director Laura Poitras. The account is quicker and more dispassionate—General James Clapper is seen lying under oath in Citizenfour. In an attempt to explain his forked tongue about the vast volume of the PRISM data collection program, soaked up directly from ISPs, Clapper says he is trying to outline what the NSA did in "the least untruthful manner."
Killswitch lucidly explains the importance of ending this massive data vacuum by the intelligence apparatus. What if we have nothing to hide, what if everything we sought and wrote on the Internet could be emblazoned on a billboard next to the church we attend? That's not the issue: the intelligence agencies are in the position of a whale trying to find one particular krill; so much is inhaled that the most important details get lost. The public is kept in constant fear over potential terrorist attacks, but the attacks still occur despite the cosmic amounts of data the NSA and other agencies are mining.
As Ludlow points out, you can juxtapose the Boston Marathon bombing—which the NSA failed to foretell despite all the wiretapping and Internet-sifting, not to mention tips from Russian intelligence officials—with the explosion at the West Texas fertilizer plant two days later. The terrorists killed three. Pernicious corporate neglect killed 15. Terror is a sideshow to the far more clear and present ecological dangers facing Earth.
Killswitch also reminds us—with the more than warm and fuzzy footage of Gandhi and MLK it deploys—that peaceful activism and strategic hacktevisim can work. The populist finale of this documentary is a montage cut to the soundtrack of a passage that most critics feel demonstrates Charlie Chaplin's intolerable preachiness: the wrapup of The Great Dictator (1941). The film ends with Chaplin at the podium lecturing the audience—it's generally cited as an exceptionally preachy moment in cinema. Here, as a voice track over a montage of the troubles of the world of 2015, Chaplin's speech calling the public to action is extremely effective, even moving.
"I wish I could take credit," Horn says. "CJ Sato, one of the editors, brought that to the table, saying 'I'm kind of tinkering with this.' We originally had the actual excerpt, where Chaplin delivers the speech in Hitler makeup, but our producer was adamant about not showing Chaplin as Hitler."
Here's some more hope offered by Killswitch. It reminds us how lobbyist and former US senator Christopher Dodd of the Motion Picture Association of America was defeated in his attempt to get SOPA—the "Stop Online Piracy Act"—passed through the senate. Dodd scoffed away worries that SOPA would "break the internet" but it was worldwide online protest that, in fact, broke SOPA.
In Killswitch, Ludlow rebukes the mainstream media's coverage of SOPA, which he suggests was soft-pedaled by broadcasting monopolies looking after their own interests. "Ludlow speaks to the problem of gatekeepers controlling info that didn't serve their ends," Horn says. "Piracy is a genuine problem. I make a living off of intellectual property and I want to be able to profit from the craft. A broader problem, though, is the way we treat art that is about to go into the public domain, as when Disney fought to get the copyright law extended."
The question is whether a free, neutral and decentralized Internet can survive, despite Wu's warnings that all sources of information eventually end up centralized and under control. Wu may be right that the government prefers a monopoly—it's one-stop shopping. But in the past, government has also broken up monopolies in industries as varied as theater ownership and meat packing.
According to Horn: "Wu also believes that once there's enough political will, the public will use pressure to see a monopoly broken up by the courts, as was the case of the breakup of Ma Bell. But then we tend to see reconsolidation years later. It's the nature of capitalism, which is not all bad."
Killswitch's makers hope that the FCC will decide in favor of protecting the Internet. Akbarzadeh notes, "Obama was supposed to be the Internet president. He dropped the ball appointing Julius Genachowski as the head of the FCC. In his second term, when he appointed Tom Wheeler, we were very skeptical—he was a cable lobbyist—but when Wheeler came out in favor of Title II status, that was the way it should have been from the beginning. "
Horn adds, "Huge companies that have a lot to lose are against it, but the Internet should be free and open, in the way it is in many foreign countries. There'll always be a way around laws, ways to outrun integrity. The problem remains of figuring out what to do with pirates, but that's a problem of evolution—everyone in the movie industry was afraid of TV and the VCR when they were invented. This fear explains the overreaction of the corporations and the complacency of the government so far. The way the government came down on Napster, for example, was ridiculous. Hopefully, the mechanism of the Internet will hand some of the power back to creators."
'Killswitch' plays Mar 1 at 6:30pm, Mar 3 at 9:30pm, and Mar 5 at 2:45pm at Camera 12 as part of the Cinequest film festival.