The original vision of the Internet, where information and media is freely shared, without one’s computer strokes and searches being metered, tracked, traced, archived, dissected, marketed and warehoused in government data banks, is dead. And that’s what’s being lost by mainstream media in the ongoing Edward Snowden coverage.
The Snowden story is not about whether Snowden is a spy, or U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will seek the death penalty, or whether Russian President Vladamir Putin will let him stay, or what dark novels his Russian lawyer has given him, or what clean clothes he has. It is, as the U.K. Guardian notes, what Snowden has revealed about today’s Internet.
Snowden’s revelations are the end of a vision of unfettered Internet freedom. Over the past decade, we’ve heard all kinds of pronoucements that the Internet is in its death throes. Technically speaking, the net is bigger, more alive and more people are interconnected than ever. But what has died amid the Internet’s evolution?
In 2002, Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote that big telecom companies were going to kill the net by charging for data use, like a utility charges for the water piped into one’s home. Gamers were particularly upset about that scenario. Today’s bigger and faster data pipes seem to have offset the fear of restricted access. But today’s Internet users pay just as Chester predicted.
Last year’s SOPA fights raised another Internet deathbed scenario: the prospect that there might be government censorship of content, because industries built on creating content could not stop its theft and demanded that Congress protect the intellectual property. The fight became so rancorous it killed congressional action. The Internet didn’t die, of course, but kept growing, with big technology firms increasingly capturing humanity’s keystrokes for their own marketing purposes.
A decade ago, few people forecast that the net’s growth would mean the disintegration of privacy for just about everyone who uses computers and digital devices. But that’s what’s at the heart of Snowden’s disclosures. And it’s not just a loss of personal privacy to the corporate sector—Google, Facebook, AT&T and the like—but its loss to the federal government’s spy agencies, police and secret courts.
“Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story,” wrote the U.K. Guardian’s John Naughton last weekend. “The story is what he has revealed about our networked world. This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media.”
Snowden told Americans and the world that their governments—so-called democracies whose legacies in the 20th century include defeating fascism and expanding individual civil rights against state power—were spying on them. It’s not the same as the Soviets in the Cold War. It’s slicker and smarter: just collect and siphon and sort our data trails and digital fingerprints for later scrutiny. Every call, e-mail, search and move is fair game.
A lot of people have responded to Snowden’s revelations with a shrug, saying, “I have nothing to hide.” But that misses the point. It’s bad enough that private companies track our movements, tastes, habits, health and networks, all to sell us more stuff. But when governments do the same thing, creating a domestic spying industry with hundreds of thousands of contractors, the potential for abuse is frightening.
That digital dragnet is what Snowden has been trying to bring into the open and reform: the Internet, once one of our greatest tools, can be turned against us.
History has shown that he is correct. The 20th century’s targets of totalitarian states had almost nowhere to run. The enemies of Egypt’s military coup, like them or not, are not so secretly being rounded up and arrested. And Snowden, the messenger in a global Internet-based spying scandal, is now a man without a country.
The Internet is not dead or dying. But it’s not our best friend forever. And as America’s spymasters and its global companies keep defending their digital dragnet, Snowden’s revelations remind us what the Internet has become.