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

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leadership, British politics, outsider politicians, Corbyn supporters

But fears abound that the battle between the leftist Corbyn and his detractors may cause Labour to split into two parties.

corporate tax avoidance, tax shelters, corporate tax breaks, tax havens, tax dodging, corporate tax loopholes

Multinational corporations pay taxes on between just 3.0 and 6.6 percent of the profits they book in tax havens.

Internal Revenue Service, new IRS rules, 501(c)4, partisan political activity, freedom of speech, money in politics, money is not speech, Public Citizen, freedom of advocacy

After Sept. 30, political and civic activists of all ideologies may need to reassess their action plans, as the IRS substantially revises regulations governing the tax-exempt status of political speech by 501(c)(4) organizations.

Wells Fargo, Wells Fargo accounts scam, city bonds,

California, the nation’s largest issuer of municipal bonds, is barring Wells from underwriting state debt and handling its banking transactions after the company admitted to opening millions of bogus customer accounts.

Environmental Protection Agency, fracking, fracking wastewater, Gulf of Mexico, Endangered Species Act, pollution

Environmentalists are warning the agency that its draft plan to continue allowing oil and gas companies to dump unlimited amounts of fracking chemicals and wastewater directly into the Gulf is in violation of federal law.

carbon emissions, Pakistan coal plants, Pakistan coal generation, Pakistan energy policy

On its projected track, Pakistan will generate a total capacity of over 23,000 megawatts of electricity from coal in the next few years to overcome its steep energy requirements.

Posted 6 days 20 hours ago
student loans, student debt, college debt, Student Loan Asset Backed Securities, subprime mortgage securities, collateralized debt, Federal Family Education Loan Program, Student Income Loans, Student Income Loans

A crucial difference between the subprime debt bubble and the student debt bubble is that the properties that comprised subprime mortgage securities served as collateral to the mortgage debt.

Posted 6 days 20 hours ago
Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party, Scottish Independence referendum, indyref, Brexit, Better Together

In light of the Brexit chaos, the broken promises and democratic deficit, it would be easy to think independence is certain – and judging by the movement's energy in Scotland, 2018 could be the year.

Posted 3 days 9 hours ago
DiEM25, austerity policies, Brexit, Lexit, Democracy in Europe Movement, Grexit

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis responds to his critics and lays out DiEM25’s plan for resisting within the European Union.

Posted 6 days 20 hours ago
occupy, activism, creative activism, Yemen, #RememberYemen, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, Islam, hijab, Abaya, Muslim Extremism, Saudi-led coalition, weapons sales, Chris Murphy, Code Pink, Saudi Kingdom, Yemeni conflict, Bushra al-Fusail, human rights, women’

Bushra al-Fusail is a Yemeni-American who lived under the ongoing airstrikes in Yemen for months before coming, ironically, to the country that makes the destruction of hers possible.

Posted 1 day 18 hours ago
carbon emissions, Pakistan coal plants, Pakistan coal generation, Pakistan energy policy

On its projected track, Pakistan will generate a total capacity of over 23,000 megawatts of electricity from coal in the next few years to overcome its steep energy requirements.

DiEM25, austerity policies, Brexit, Lexit, Democracy in Europe Movement, Grexit

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis responds to his critics and lays out DiEM25’s plan for resisting within the European Union.

occupy, activism, creative activism, Yemen, #RememberYemen, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, Islam, hijab, Abaya, Muslim Extremism, Saudi-led coalition, weapons sales, Chris Murphy, Code Pink, Saudi Kingdom, Yemeni conflict, Bushra al-Fusail, human rights, women’

Bushra al-Fusail is a Yemeni-American who lived under the ongoing airstrikes in Yemen for months before coming, ironically, to the country that makes the destruction of hers possible.

Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party, Scottish Independence referendum, indyref, Brexit, Better Together

In light of the Brexit chaos, the broken promises and democratic deficit, it would be easy to think independence is certain – and judging by the movement's energy in Scotland, 2018 could be the year.

Human Rights Act, Bill of Rights, Teresa May, European Convention on Human Rights, Nicola Sturgeon, Equality and Human Rights Commission, European Court of Human Rights, Brexit, rising racism, xenophobia, racist attacks

The Human Rights Act will be replaced with a so-called British Bill of Rights, a controversial manifesto that was written under the former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.