Will Centralization, Regulation, and Globalization Kill the Internet?

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Could the Internet go from liberator to oppressor?

Just this week, an early-August speech by Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, came across my desk. It's the kind of thought-provoking piece that makes you ignore everthing else you need to get to in your In Box. The speech, The Lifecycle of a Revolution, was delivered at Black Hat 2015, a network security meeting in Las Vegas. Granick’s dire warning: the dream of Internet freedom -- a free, open, reliable, interoperable Internet, a place where anyone can say anything, and anyone who wants to hear it can listen and respond, a place where everyone could be a publisher and a creator, a global medium that had everything on the shelves – that dream is dying. Gulp. And although there’s plenty of blame to go around for this loss, Granick puts the bulk of it on you, me, herself… all of us who use the Internet. Double gulp. [Honestly, if you have time to read or watch the entire speech (about 20 pages when we printed it), do that. We summarize below.]

In starkest terms, Granick warns that in a mere 20 years the Internet could complete a transformation from liberator to oppressor. Already, the Internet is less open and more centralized, more regulated, and increasingly less global and more divided. Centralization means a cheap and easy point for control and surveillance. Regulation means exercise of government power in favor of domestic, national interests and private entities with economic influence over lawmakers. Globalization means more governments are getting into the Internet regulation mix. They want to both protect and to regulate their citizens. And remember, the next billion Internet users are going to come from countries without a First Amendment, without a Bill of Rights, maybe even without due process or the rule of law. So these limitations won’t necessarily be informed by what we in the U.S. consider basic civil liberties.

In this dark view 20 years from now:

  1. You won’t necessarily know anything about the decisions that affect you because they will be decided by data-crunching computer algorithms and no human will really be able to understand why.
  2. The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation envisioned 20 years ago.
  3. Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this will be particularly true for security.
  4. Internet technology design increasingly facilitates rather than defeats censorship and control. Via the Internet of Things, our physical, off-line lives will be digitized, networked and surveilled.
“For better or for worse, we’ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness.”

Granick sees the transition from the dream to a bleak reality because of our own choices. “For better or for worse, we’ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness,” she said.

Granick highlights some key characteristics of our online world of 2015:

  • Racism and sexism thrive in the digital world. And she points to the lack of diversity in the tech industry’s workforce as a major cause for this.
  • Today, our ability to know, modify and trust the technology we use is limited by both the law and our capacity for understanding complex systems. We’ve just about lost our freedom to tinker with the technology we use on a daily basis.
  • We’re in the Golden Age of Surveillance: Technology is generating more information about us than ever before, and will increasingly do so, making a map of everything we do, changing the balance of power between us, businesses and governments.
  • The physical design and the business models that fund the communications networks we use have changed in ways that facilitate rather than defeat censorship and control. Broadband Internet providers want to build smart pipes that discriminate for quality of service, differential pricing, and other new business models. Hundreds of millions of people conduct their social interactions over just a few platforms like TenCent and Facebook.

Who’s to Blame

Looking for someone to blame for the state of the Internet, Granick looks in (our collective) mirror:

“Now when I say that the Internet is headed for corporate control, it may sound like I’m blaming corporations. When I say that the Internet is becoming more closed because governments are policing the network, it may sound like I’m blaming the police. I am. But I’m also blaming you. And me. Because the things that people want are helping drive increased centralization, regulation and globalization.”

  • We post a Facebook update instead of blogging.
  • We use Gmail instead of more private e-mail.
  • We rely on Apple to vet our apps.
  • We give those apps all the permissions they want.

Governments see the power of platforms and have proposed that social media companies alert federal authorities when they become aware of terrorist-related content on their sites. But you don’t have to have censorship laws if you can bring pressure to bear. People cheer when Google voluntarily delists so-called revenge porn, when YouTube deletes ISIS propaganda videos, when Twitter adopts tougher policies on hate speech. The end result is collateral censorship. By putting pressure on platforms and intermediaries, governments can indirectly control what we say and what we experience. What that means is that governments, or corporations, or the two working together increasingly decide what we can see. It’s not true that anyone can say anything and be heard anywhere. It’s more true that your breast feeding photos aren’t welcome and, increasingly, that your unorthodox opinions about radicalism will get you placed on a list.

Globalization means other governments are in the censorship mix. Each country wants to enforce its own laws and protect and police its citizens as it sees fit, and that means a different Internet experience for different countries or regions. In Europe, accurate information is being delisted from search engines, to make it harder or impossible to find.

“So much for talking to everyone everywhere in real time. So much for having everything on the Internet shelf.”

The Cycle

History shows a typical progression from open to closed system

Granick draws on Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires to note that it's not like we haven't seen this play before: “History shows a typical progression of information technologies, from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system,” Wu wrote in 2011. “Eventually, innovators or regulators smash apart the closed system, and the cycle begins afresh,” Granick notes.

Both Wu and Granick ask, “Is the Internet subject to this cycle? Will it be centralized and corporately controlled? Will it be freely accessible, a closed system or something in between?”

Granick believes we’ve reached an inflection point. "If we change paths, it is still possible that the Dream of Internet Freedom can become true. But if we don’t, it won’t. The Internet will continue to evolve into a slick, stiff, controlled and closed thing." But, without a change in course, the Internet will end up being like TV.

How to Change the Course: Begin With the Tough Questions

Can we answer the tough questions?

If we are to preserve the Internet as a place for even edgy and disruptive speech, we need to change course. And, first, we need to ask some tough questions:

  • What does it mean for companies to know everything about us, and for computer algorithms to make life and death decisions?
  • Should we worry more about another terrorist attack in New York, or the ability of journalists and human rights workers around the world to keep working?
  • How much free speech does a free society really need? Alternatively how much sovereignty should a nation give up to enable a truly global network to flourish?
  • How can we stop being afraid and start being sensible about risk?
  • Can technology now establish a balance of power between governments and the governed that would guard against social and political oppression?
  • Given that decisions by private companies define individual rights and security, how can we act on that understanding in a way that protects the public interest and doesn’t squelch innovation?
  • Whose responsibility is digital security?
  • What is the future of the Dream of Internet Freedom?

What's At Stake

People in power want more security for themselves at the expense of others

"The battleground of the future is that people in power want more security for themselves at the expense of others," Granick said. She hears "cybersecurity" as shorthand for military domination of the Internet, as General Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA head, has said — ensuring U.S. access and denying access to our enemies. "Security for me, but not for thee. Does that sound like an open, free, robust, global Internet to you?" Granick asks. "I see governments and elites picking and choosing security haves and security have nots. In other words, security will be about those in power trying to get more power."

Granick says that what’s at stake is the well-being of vulnerable communities and minorities that need security most. What’s at stake is the very ability of citizens to petition the government. Of religious minorities to practice their faith without fear of reprisals. Of gay people to find someone to love. This state of affairs should worry anyone who is outside the mainstream, whether an individual, a political or religious group, or a start up without market power.

How to Change the Course: The Reforms We Need

Foreseeing a dark future, Granick already has ideas for how to keep her ideal of the Internet alive.

  • We have to implement legal reforms to stop suspicion-less spying.
  • We have to protect e-mail and our physical location from warrantless searches.
  • We have to stop overriding the few privacy laws we have to gain a false sense of online security.
  • We have to utterly reject secret surveillance laws, if only because secret law is an abomination in a democracy.
  • Congress has to forgo the tough-on-cybercrime hand waving it engages in every year.
  • We have to declare that users own and can modify the software we buy and download — despite software licenses and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
  • We build in decentralization where possible. Strong end-to-end encryption can start to right the imbalance between tech, law and human rights.
  • We decide that the government has no role in dictating communications technology design.
  • We have to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
  • We stop being so sensitive about speech and we let noxious bullshit air out.
Save the Internet – or build something new and better

The alternative, Granick offers, is that we let the ideal of a free and open Internet die. But, if the Dream of the Internet is dead, “we need to think about creating the technology for the next lifecycle of the revolution. In the next 20 years we need to get ready to smash the Internet apart and build something new and better.”

By Kevin Taglang.