James Dalton Bell expects to be released from federal prison on December 20th, 2009. Given past events, however, that release may be short-lived, or simply not occur at all.
The US government considers Bell a very dangerous man. So dangerous, in fact, that during his last trial (if it can even be called that) the entire court record was sealed, he was forbidden to subpoena witnesses, and he was forcibly “represented” by a lawyer chosen by the government, whom he was not allowed to fire.
What makes Bell so dangerous? He has an idea, and he’s written about that idea in detail and at length. His version of the idea is one that most would probably classify as “extreme,” but it’s the nature, not the extremity, of the idea which got government into a tizzy.
Bell’s calls his idea “assassination politics:” An anonymous prediction market in the deaths of political figures. In a prediction market, participants place bets on events, and collect if their predictions are correct (the players who aren’t correct lose their money).
Simply put, Bell’s idea is that anonymous, untraceable digital money will allow the enforcement of “good behavior” on politicians. A politician who pisses people off will find his or her name listed in the “assassination market.” Once enough money is in the pool under that politician’s name to make it worth the risk, someone will “bet” on when that politician is going to die, kill (or arrange the killing of) the politician at the time in question, and collect the pool money.
Actually, calling this Bell’s idea is stretching things. He didn’t invent digital money, nor did he invent the concept of an “assassination market.” He just wrote about the political implications of both. He’s now spent more than a decade in the court system and in various prisons for doing so.
Bell’s essay took emerging technological developments to their theoretical extreme, but government prosecutors couldn’t try him for “felony production of essays.” Instead, they patched together a crazy quilt of allegations, ranging from tax evasion to “stalking a federal employee” — some possibly true, some probably false, most unworthy of being called “crimes” even if true.
It would be easy to write off the Bell case as an outlier — a rare case of government overreaction — if not for the fact that in the decade following his initial prosecution, lots of other people have found themselves confronted by police, and some have even gone to jail, for implementing a non-extreme, but central, element of the package he put together. That element? Outing and identifying bad actors in government.
With the advent of small, portable digital cameras, “gotcha” moments have embarrassed “law enforcement” with public documentation of abuses on a regular basis. The response has been a general crackdown — not on bad cops, but on those who expose them. Bloggers, “real journalists” and regular citizens have been roughed up, and in some cases arrested on bogus “disorderly conduct” charges, for nothing more than taking pictures of public employees in action.
Post-9/11, the “global war on terror” has provided new excuses for suppressing the urge to take photos or video footage. In America “suspicious” behavior worthy of police attention now includes taking photographs of buildings, an activity once considered a common pastime. The United Kingdom’s 2008 “anti-terror” law effectively makes it illegal to photograph a police officer, a development no doubt looked upon with approval by American “law enforcement.”
The courts have generally upheld the power of a police officer to demand identification from a citizen, but the trend has gone in the other direction when it comes to the identities of police officers and other government employees. Police departments routinely withhold the identities of officers involved in shooting incidents. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona even subpoenaed and arrested two newspaper editors for publishing his home address. Also in Arizona, Phoenix police raided the home of a blogger who exposed bad cops, stealing his computers and records.
The connection between the increasingly secretive attitude of “law enforcement” and the writings of Jim Bell may seem tenuous, but it isn’t. Politicians desperately want you to not know, and to never learn, three things: That you don’t need them, that they do you more harm than good, and that there might be something you can do about it.
Just as the music industry is losing its ongoing fight with peer-to-peer file sharing tech, government is going to lose its fight with digital photography and videography. And with Jim Bell.