Read

Search form

Citizens of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Data

Citizens of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Data
Fri, 11/1/2013 - by Carne Ross
This article originally appeared on The Guardian

Congress is to review the NSA surveillance program. We should thank Edward Snowden for this extraordinary occurrence. Snowden's revelations have revealed pernicious threats to our freedoms, privacy and, indeed, democracy. But Congress will not resolve them – because it cannot.

Karl Popper argued that the preservation of democracy requires independent courts, legislature and press to check and restrain otherwise overweening authority. Shockingly, Snowden has shown that, today, these mechanisms have failed.

But for Snowden, Congress wouldn't even know what the NSA is doing. Secret Fisa court hearings have served as little more than a rubber stamp in authorizing its activities. Only one or two tough-minded newspapers have taken on the fight.

Relying on occasional brave whistleblowers is scant protection for liberty and democracy. Popper wrote for the world of the 20th century. In the 21st, the internet has changed the game.

Much of our lives is now transacted on line. The data we produce are available to governments and companies in huge abundance. It is horribly clear that both the state and private actors, sometimes in cahoots, have grossly abused this access to intrude into our affairs and exploit information about us.

Congress may draw red lines around bugging Angela Merkel's cellphone, or reading Americans' emails, but a few new, broadly-drafted laws or congressional committees won't be enough. Government's and business's hunger for information is insatiable; their technical abilities to obtain it will only improve. Snowden has shown us that they cannot be trusted with this power.

The balance between the individual and state needs to be more fundamentally altered. New rules, in fact new kinds of rules, are needed. What is required is nothing less than a renegotiation of our contract with the state, and with each other.

The internet is profoundly different from earlier systems of human interaction and information. It is stateless, it is immense, it is a horizontal environment. It works because it permits the many to engage and share with the many, billions of actors in constant interaction. Such complex systems are inherently resistant to top-down management: they are too vast and unknowable; they adapt to changes very quickly and unpredictably.

These characteristics impel governments to respond by sucking up more and more data, as they try desperately to track an immense and multiplying universe of information. At the UN and elsewhere, more authoritarian governments want to put the internet under more coercive control, with laws and treaties to restrict and monitor what happens there.

Governments do not seem able to balance the tensions between privacy, openness and security manifest in the internet. Their innate reaction to its sprawling complexity is to control and to intrude, threatening privacy, freedom of speech or sharing of ideas: the very things that make the internet great.

To protect these things and to regulate the system effectively, we should not look to government but to each other. In complex systems, order emerges from the bottom up, from the collected actions of individual agents. The internet doesn't need new laws from on high, but new standards or norms that are collectively agreed and then enforced.

These standards should comprise strictly defined protections for private data and rules for interaction and conduct on the internet, between us, private companies and governments. Our personal data, for instance, should be held by us, not by others. Companies will need our explicit permission to access it; governments should require tightly limited legal warrant.

These standards would need to be agreed, and evolve, in an open deliberative process that should involve private individuals, companies and indeed government. All should commit to them, and agree to police them. The preservation of our freedoms implies a responsibility to protect them, too.

A company that dishonestly exploits its users' data, for instance, might be publicized and the perpetrators shamed, in the way that Anonymous has begun to do, albeit untidily and arbitrarily. The eBay rating systems have shown that good behavior can be collectively promoted without coercion. For the violent and criminal, enforcement must remain government's preserve.

I am not proposing free-for-all internet vigilantism or mere selfish libertarianism, but a rebalanced contract between people, companies and state, where all make and supervise commitments to privacy, transparency and collective safety: a new social contract, but not between government and us, but between all and all, self-government and regulation that conforms to the nature of the internet itself.

Congress is designed for an earlier world of clearly delineated states and point-to-point communications. It is unlikely to grasp that its methods and laws are ill-suited to the new virtual reality. Any organ of state will inevitably reject rules that are generated and enforced by all, and not a singular authority.

Snowden has shown us many remarkable things. But perhaps, the most important is that the old ways of arbitrating our freedom, privacy and security don't work anymore. The internet is an extraordinary and unprecedented new world. It demands new kinds of rules – not government's, but ours.

Add new comment

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock, Alex Garland, Bakken pipeline, North Dakota

Here are some of the faces from Standing Rock, in their own words.

Austrian elections, populist movemens, rightwing populism, anti-Europe sentiment, Brexit, Donald Trump, Freedom Party, xenophobia

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party has a shot to win the presidency and become Austria's first right-wing head of state since the end of World War II.

democracies in decline, liberal democracy, Freedom House, Yascha Mounk, Roberto Stefan Foa, deconsolidation, anti-establishment politics, Journal of Democracy

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard and author of Stranger in My Own Country, says liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline.

Dakota Access Pipeline, #NoDAPL, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, Fort Laramie Treaty, Barack Obama, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Missouri River

Snow is slowing covering the encampment at Standing Rock, and despite an "emergency evacuation order" issued this week by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters aren't leaving.

Fight for $15, living wage, minimum wage hikes, Service Employees International Union, protest arrests, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, overtime pay

Scores of demonstrators were arrested on Tuesday as U.S. fast-food and airport workers led nationwide protests for higher pay and union rights in their first major action since Donald Trump was elected president.

Milwaukee Public Schools, school vouchers, Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, charter schools

Wisconsin attributed its suspension of the privatization program to increased test scores and new criteria for grading schools – but months of resistance from public school staff, students and community organizers ultimately achieved the win.

Posted 5 days 2 hours ago
standing rock, oceti sakowin, lakota, cheyenne, sioux, north dakota, NoDAPL, oil pipeline, Army Corps of Engineers, wiyaka eagleman, eviction notice, veterans for standing rock, lake oahe, oahe dam, governor jack dalrymple, blockades, sophia wilansky, rio

This week, in a special episode, we dig into the latest news from Standing Rock.

Posted 3 days 10 hours ago
Dakota Access Pipeline, #NoDAPL, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, Fort Laramie Treaty, Barack Obama, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Missouri River

Snow is slowing covering the encampment at Standing Rock, and despite an "emergency evacuation order" issued this week by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters aren't leaving.

Posted 2 days 10 hours ago
U.K. austerity, Chartered Institute of Housing, U.K. Conservative government, benefit payments, child poverty, rising poverty, U.K. benefit cuts

More than 300,000 children living in low-income households in Britain are set to plunge further into poverty thanks to a controversial austerity measure introduced earlier this month by the Conservative government.

Posted 4 days 10 hours ago
Austrian elections, populist movemens, rightwing populism, anti-Europe sentiment, Brexit, Donald Trump, Freedom Party, xenophobia

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party has a shot to win the presidency and become Austria's first right-wing head of state since the end of World War II.

Posted 1 day 10 hours ago
Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP protests, corporate trade deals, free trade, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, TPP defeated

The real reason TPP died is this: an unprecedented, international uprising of people from across the political spectrum took on some of the most powerful institutions in the world, and won.

Austrian elections, populist movemens, rightwing populism, anti-Europe sentiment, Brexit, Donald Trump, Freedom Party, xenophobia

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party has a shot to win the presidency and become Austria's first right-wing head of state since the end of World War II.

Dakota Access Pipeline, #NoDAPL, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, Fort Laramie Treaty, Barack Obama, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Missouri River

Snow is slowing covering the encampment at Standing Rock, and despite an "emergency evacuation order" issued this week by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters aren't leaving.

Reconstruction, Civil Rights movement, Donald Trump, Southern Strategy, Plessy v. Ferguson, moral coalition, Third Reconstruction

The reactionary wave that swept across America with the election of Donald Trump is not an anomaly in our history. It is an all-too-familiar pattern in the long struggle for American reconstruction.

Milwaukee Public Schools, school vouchers, Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, charter schools

Wisconsin attributed its suspension of the privatization program to increased test scores and new criteria for grading schools – but months of resistance from public school staff, students and community organizers ultimately achieved the win.