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20 January 2020

If George Orwell was alive today, would he be an Internet troll?

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Many parents would be shocked if they found schoolteachers providing banned books to their children. If I mentioned the bible is virtually banned in China, they would see where I was going and their shock would dissipate.

When George Orwell finished Animal Farm, he struggled to find a publisher for it. It wasn't officially banned like a section of What Not but it was incredibly unpopular with mainstream publishers, like certain blog posts that mysteriously fail to appear in search results today.

In 2017, a German organisation, FSFE e.V, elected me as their community representative. They had this odd approach to membership, approximately 28 people had been registered as members of the assocation. Their 1500 volunteers and donors were invited to join but kept off the books. As the organization's contempt for membership became apparent, I started to feel Orwell's animals coming to life. As he wrote all those years ago, All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. In FSFE's case, we could say all Fellows are equal but some Fellows are more equal than others.

Those wanting to suppress publication of Orwell's work felt that his pigs and plot were unambiguously analogous to the rise of a British ally, the young Soviet Union. In particular, his choice of the pig to represent Stalin's elite was seen as blatantly offensive: an early example of what we call trolling today.

In recent times, both the US First Lady and the Queen of England have been accused of trolling the US president with their wardrobe choices. A young female Muslim in the US has been accused of trolling China with a make-up video. Would Orwell appreciate their courage?

Seventy years after Orwell's death, the copyright on all his works expires shortly and people will be able to distribute copies and make derivative works in much the same way that we can distribute and make derivative works from software licensed under a free license.

Throughout the free software space, we can see the the pig phenomena has spread with all the poetry of foot-and-mouth disease: one of the larger organizations, the Debian Project, started an experiment in demotions during 2018. A few weeks later, Lucy Wayland, a volunteer confined to the lowest tier, Debian Contributor, was dead. At almost the same time, a much smaller organization in Albania tried to replicate the model, declaring by fiat that all foreign members were being demoted under the radar at Christmas.

Where would Orwell fit in these organizations that exist for nothing less than the promotion of our freedom (over technology)? Would he surf the web with the Tor Browser, using anonymous email accounts to post messages satiring the abuse of volunteers? Instead of using fiction to convey his messages, would he have developed an app like Girls-Around-Me, a stark demonstration of how nude we all are on social media?

Or would Mr Orwell refrain from writing anything at all, horrified at the thought that Amazon would track every purchase of his works?

Animal Farm is only one side of the Orwellian coin, the other being his uncannily accurate tour-de-force of the modern surveillance state, Nineteen-Eighty-Four. All of the organizations mentioned above (Debian, FSFE) are secretly funded by Google. Would you be less surprised to find a bible in a church than to find Nineteen-Eighty-Four under the pillows of Google's founders? One of the most startling discoveries during my time as community representative was the extent to which all of these organizations had built their budgets around recurring annual contributions from Google. Their experiments in demotions arose at exactly the same time that women in Google's workforce who spoke up against harassment found themselves being publicly demoted and humiliated. It was revealed that one of the organizations, Debian, had secretly banked $300,000 from Google under the radar at the same time that attention was on an identical-sized donation from a non-profit, the Handshake Foundation. What a convenient cover. After Linux Foundation and FSFE had decided to eliminate their annual elections, Google's money had a community representative "demoted" to a lower status in Debian just days before the call for nominations in leadership elections.

Today, it feels that the tables have been turned, the installation of surveillance cameras at the grave of Karl Marx trolling those who sympathise with Orwell's works.

Reading Animal Farm at school, I never imagined it had any relevance to the real world. It felt like pure fiction. I never imagined being one of the casualties.

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