The End of the Internet Dream

Have We Lost The Dream?

As technologists, it is good to step outside our own “cyberniche” and gain new perspective in the niches of others cyber workers. In this case, my journey took me to Blackhat USA and Defcon, two of the largest “infosec” conferences in the United States. There I stumbled on the keynote of Jennifer Granick. Though I rarely attend keynotes, this one sounded worth the time and it did not disappoint.

jennifer grannick

“In 20 years, the Web might complete its shift from liberator to oppressor. It’s up to us to prevent that.”

The Formidable Jennifer Granick

Jennifer Granick. If you are not familiar, let me make a quick introduction. Granick is Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. She held this same position at the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and has defended some of the more well known criminal hackers in recent memory, including Kevin Poulsen, Aaron Swartz, Jerome Heckenkamp and those involved in the Diebold Election Systems case. Granick is a power player in an arena that is mostly made up of men, and though she agrees the fields of technology have presented some very real issues for women, she has never felt she experienced those herself.

She is what you would call in any informal circles a technical and legal Badass”.

So when Granick has something to say it is worth listening. And in Granick’s Blackhat USA keynote “The Lifecycle of a Revolution” she has something to say that is not only worth our consideration, but our contemplation. Granick has seen the future of the net in all its technical, legal and commercial implications and asks us a very important question “Is the dream dying? And if it is not dying, where is it going?”

“The Dream?”

To those who started in “tech” late or maybe are too young to remember, Granick retraces for us the origins of the Internet. She reminds us it was not the walled gardens of Facebook and Amazon. It was not the next commerce platform or designed to hold the Ashley Madison’s of the world. It was conceived as a place of intellectual freedom, a place where we were able to escape the prejudices of others. It was designed to be a space where you would be judged on the content of your thoughts, not your race/nation/religion, but most importantly it was a place where governments would not intercede.

Utopia?

Today we might think of this as a rather utopian idea, but in the early days these were real goals set-forth by the real people who created our online foundations. The Internet was still in its innocent infancy and the future was anything we wanted it to be. Some of those reading this might even be lucky enough to have lived online during those exciting times fondly remembering that vision and its manifestations.

It was the days of bulletin boards and anonymous people connecting in a free space from around the world. It was sharing thoughts and ideas. It was communication. It was innovation. It was Universities sharing books, documents, and literature across the black backgrounds of individual DOS screens. There was no graphical interface – just text, but that text opened up worlds you never had access to before.

Of course DOS screens were fine for chats, but not sharing the collections of Shakespeare or reading the Koran. Soon there were the first graphical interfaces and browsers and we began to walk forward into the world we now almost take for granted today.

Granick relates to us this idea of the free-flowing information; open data and borderless community that seemed to be the future of the net and then how that all started to change with the Communications Decency Act Act of 1996.

Dodging the Bullet.

The Communications Decency Act was meant to be the first set of legislative controls over cyberspace. The government had arrived. The purpose? Go after online pornography and define what was “decent”.

Fortunately, most of the provisions were struck down and what we were left with actually protected the companies to follow. The surviving edict from the Communications Decency Act was that companies could not be held legally libel for what their users did on their sites – most specifically the porn the sought to legislate in the first place.

But even though the CDA was struck down Granick tells us, a movement was started. People such as John Perry Barlow (the former lyricist of the Grateful Dead) and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) were prompted to start protecting this dream. Barlow’s famous “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” was as Granick says, a love letter to the Internet.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.”

* If you have never read the work in its entirety I highly suggest you do, it is quick and easy read.

Even more importantly this was no accident. What made this all-possible, Granick shares with us, is the concept of decentralization.

Decentralization

Decentralization is the concept that no one power, person, company or country should be able to control the free flow of digital information. It is what the Internet was built on. It is what empowered people.

As Granick states in her talk, “Decentralization was built into the very DNA of the early Internet, smart endpoints, but dumb pipes, that would carry whatever brilliant glories the human mind and heart could create to whomever wanted to listen.”

It was pure democratization. It was designed to be that way. It was intentional.

“The design of the early public Internet was end-to-end. That meant dumb pipes that would carry anything, and smart edges, where application and content innovation would occur. This design principle was intentional. The Internet would not just enable communication, but would do so in a decentralized, radically democratic way. Power to the people, not to the governments or companies that run the pipes”

But that was 20 years ago…

How quickly things change.

Granick reminds us however the Internet started we are quickly losing this open place to innovate, communicate, connect and explore. The Internet has become a place of walled gardens and government control as we enter the “Golden Age of Surveillance”.

“Today, 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. In the next 20 years, we will see amazing advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Software programs are going to be deciding whether a car runs people over, or drives off a bridge. Software programs are going to decide who gets a loan, and who gets a job. If intellectual property law will protect these programs from serious study, then the public will have no idea how these decisions are being made. Professor Frank Pasquale has called this the Black Box Society. Take secrecy and the profit motive, add a billion pieces of data, and shake.”

The dream of a utopian space where people of the world come together to share ideas and celebrate in safety free from government oversight and the judgments placed on us by others is almost dead, Granick mournfully warns us.

But she tells us; it does not need to be. While we have conflated privacy and security and centralized the Internet into the cloud controlled by not the many, but the few, we are free to choose a different future. Her concern however is will we?

“Freedom to Tinker”

As the controls grow and ownership becomes more and more centralized into the hands of a few, not the many, centralization, globalization and regulation become the new enemies of the open net.  We are entering the age of the haves and have not where the technology we use is hidden in the “Black Box” where we not only do not know what the tech in our lives does, but with legal prohibitions that prevent us from discovering it. She asks us to consider if this makes us less free?

“In a Black Box Society, how can we ensure that the outcome is in the public interest? The first step is obviously transparency, but our ability to understand is limited by current law and also by the limits of our human intelligence. The companies that make these products might not necessarily know how their product works either. Without adequate information, how can we democratically influence or oversee these decisions? We are going to have to learn how, or live in a society that is less fair and less free.”

We are losing our “Freedom to Tinker” as she calls it. We are losing our ability to dissemble and understand the very tech that is growing ever more present in our day-to-day lives.  As cyber law becomes more imposing and restrictive, as corporate owners stake larger and larger territorial claims on who can open the proverbial box, we gradually lose more and more of our ability to know the very world we live in. As IoT expands, as we are tracked more, as fewer and fewer entities own the very space we live in online how does this affect us?

Soon we might be surrounded by systems that we and not even the product manufacturer understands. Then what do we do? Moreover, who’s to blame and who can change it? Or do we even want to?

So whose fault is this?

Granick reminds us that while it would be easy to lay all the blame on the impending and impeding outside forces, we also share the blame.

“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.”

Our daily interactions with the Internet and the cloud are also supporting further closure of this once open system. In short, we like our stuff. We like our Facebook, our Google Maps, our fledgling (though growing) Internet of Things (IoT). She doesn’t fault us, she too likes her iPhone and apps, her maps and that when she is at the store her phone reminds her to buy milk. Yet, knowingly we are handing over control to the few,

This is happening in no small part because we want lots of cool products “in the cloud.” But the cloud isn’t an amorphous collection of billions of water droplets. The cloud is actually a finite and knowable number of large companies with access to or control over large pieces of the Internet. It’s Level 3 for fiber optic cables, Amazon for servers, Akamai for CDN, Facebook for their ad network, Google for Android and the search engine. It’s more of an oligopoly than a cloud. And, intentionally or otherwise, these products are now choke points for control, surveillance and regulation.”

So what does Granick suggest we do?

“The Cycle”

Granick suggests we have two choices. We can continue to follow along our current path or we can pushback. We can pushback on government intrusion and centralization. We can decouple the concepts of privacy and security as mutually dependent. We can seek to protect our data, our freedom of expression and our private spaces. Yet, we can still desire security for our countries and ourselves.

“Here’s a quiz. What do emails, buddy lists, drive back ups, social networking posts, web browsing history, your medical data, your bank records, your face print, your voice print, your driving patterns and your DNA have in common?

Answer: The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn’t think any of these things are private. Because the data is technically accessible to service providers or visible in public, it should be freely accessible to investigators and spies.”

But Granick asks us “will we”? Will we seek a new path? She acknowledges some of us don’t even desire to do this. Some of us are okay with these systems and intrusions. Some of us are happy to walk into a closed future of centralized control. But for those of us who are not where are we headed?

Things Will Only Get Worse.

If we do not act she tells us, that we will lose the Internet we know, that is will become strikingly similar to Television. She tells us if we don’t pushback and change direction we will only see more repression, more intrusion, more tracking, more invasion into the lives of individuals.

“Surveillance couldn’t get much worse, but in the next 20 years, it actually will. Now we have networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, that will keep track of our home heating, and how much food we take out of our refrigerator, and our exercise, sleep, heartbeat, and more. These things are taking our off-line physical lives and making them digital and networked, in other words, surveillable.

To have any hope of attaining the Dream of Internet Freedom, we have to implement legal reforms to stop suspicion-less spying. We have to protect email and our physical location from warrantless searches. We have to stop overriding the few privacy laws we have to gain with 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.”

She tells us that if we do not pushback, if we do not insist on more freedoms, not less. If we do not push for laws that offer security, but also privacy. If we do not help to repeal cyber acts such as the Patriot Act, the DCMA, the CFAA in the US or the CyberSecurity Bills in other countries Granick is afraid we will surely lose our freedoms. Not just the freedom of the open net, but the freedom of personal privacy and private spaces.

If freedom is lost, is there any hope?

She tells us if we do not fight back now, she find hopes in Tim Wu’s research on “the Cycle” from his book “The Master Switch”.

“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.

Eventually, innovators or regulators smash apart the closed system, and the cycle begins afresh. In the book, Tim asks the question I’m asking you. 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.”

So Granick asks where are we now in “The Cycle” and what is our future? Do we change paths now and take back the Dream or do we let it slip away hoping that in our lifetimes we see the system destroyed, recreated and reopened to start again.

There are no easy answers, but there will come a time, not too far off where you will need to be able to know which future you are working towards.

Granick hopes you will fight for the freedom of our combined futures.

References

You can read her full talk here:
(Reference for excerpts of Granick’s speech)
https://medium.com/backchannel/the-end-of-the-internet-dream-ba060b17da61

Or YouTube:

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About Kristine Schachinger

Kristine Schachinger is a website Implementation Consultant, specializing in SEO, Accessibility & UI/X. She has over fifteen years experience in the creation, development, implementation and maintenance of websites in all areas.