The End of the Internet Dream?Posted: August 24, 2015
In 20 years, the Web might complete its shift from liberator to oppressor. It’s up to us to prevent that.
“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?”
For better or for worse, we’ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness. The Internet is less open and more centralized. It’s more regulated. And increasingly it’s less global, and more divided. These trends: centralization, regulation, and globalization are accelerating. And they will define the future of our communications network, unless something dramatic changes.
Twenty years from now,
• You won’t necessarily know anything about the decisions that affect your rights, like whether you get a loan, a job, or if a car runs over you. Things will get decided by data-crunching computer algorithms and no human will really be able to understand why.
• The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation we envisioned 20 years ago.
• Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this will be particularly true for security.
•Internet technology design increasingly facilitates rather than defeats censorship and control.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But to change course, we need to ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions.
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?
How can we stop being afraid and start being sensible about risk? Technology has evolved into a Golden Age for Surveillance. 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?
For me, the Dream of Internet Freedom started in 1984 with Steven Levy’s book “Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution.” Levy told the story of old school coders and engineers who believed that all information should be freely accessible. They imagined that computers would empower people to make our own decisions about what was right and wrong. Empowering people depended on the design principle of decentralization. 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.
This idea, that we could be in charge of our own intellectual destinies, appealed to me immensely. In 1986, I entered New College, a liberal arts school in Sarasota, Florida. Its motto is “Each student is responsible in the last analysis for his or her education.” That same year, I read the Hacker Manifesto, written by The Mentor and published in Phrack magazine. I learned that hackers, like my fellow academic nerds at New College, were also people that didn’t want to be spoon-fed intellectual baby food. Hackers wanted free access to information, they mistrusted authority, they wanted to change the world — to a place where people could explore and curiosity was its own reward.
In 1991 I started using the public Internet. I remember sending a chat request to a sysop, asking for help. And then I could see the letters that he was typing appearing in real time on my screen, viscerally knowing for the first time that this technology allowed talking to someone, anyone, everyone, in real time, anywhere. That’s when I really began to believe that the Dream of Internet Freedom could one day become a reality.
Twenty years ago, I was a criminal defense attorney, and I learned that hackers were getting in trouble for some tricks that I thought were actually pretty cool. As a prison advocate in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, I represented a guy who was looking at six more months in jail for hooting into the pay phone and getting free calls home. My research on that case made me realize there were a lot of laws that could impact hackers, and that I could help….(read more)
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- Hackers and government live in an uneasy house (cyberlaw.stanford.edu)
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