Law in the Internet Society

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AlexGertenSecondPaper 1 - 01 Apr 2016 - Main.AlexanderGerten
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META TOPICPARENT name="WebPreferences"
If everyone in the United States were to be given a questionnaire asking, “do you want to be tracked: yes or no” an overwhelming majority of people would respond “no.” Unfortunately, the choice we are given is not “do you want to be tracked” but “would you rather be tracked or excluded from social life?” Six months ago, a few of my law school friends organized a poker game over Facebook. The next Monday after the game, me and one other person at the game were talking about it, and another one of our friends who wasn’t at the game asked why he wasn’t invited. The reason was that we thought we did invite him. We organized the game by sending a message to the “Columbia Law Poker” group message, which our technically uninvited friend removed himself from when he deleted his Facebook profile.

We could and should have accommodated our friend better and sent him an email invitation, or one person could have unilaterally taken the entire list of people in the Facebook group message and placed them on a group email or listserv. However, doing this would not change the fact that other people operate on the understanding that social life will be organized through Facebook, and this person will be excluded from several gatherings because of it. He was not given the choice of “spying and distraction or no spying and distraction” but of “spying and distraction or x number of missed invitations.”

This is an example of what Moxie Marlinspike has referred to as the “no network effect,” and it is hardly the strongest example of it. The no network effect is the inversion of the network effect, in which a technology or social practice gains becomes more valuable to its users or practitioners when more people adopt it. The no network effect occurs when people cease using a previously networked technology or practice because they have moved into another network. For example, before there was a large network of people using cell phones, people would make plans in advance to meet at a specific location at a specific time. Most people have abandoned this social practice in favor of using cell phones, so people cannot unilaterally decide that they want to participate in the old practice, since the network that made the practice useful is no longer there.

In addition to private and secure technologies that are difficult to use because of the no network effect, some technologies that are designed to enhance privacy can impair the user’s privacy if used incorrectly due to the relatively small user base of those technologies. The documents released by Edward Snowden have shown that the NSA has attempted to identify people using Tor to anonymize their internet traffic and that it has been successful in identifying some of them. People who would have generally blended into the crowd if they decided not to use Tor have drawn official attention to themselves and are in a worse position than if they had taken no steps to protect their privacy. If more people used Tor, then the authorities could draw no real probabilistic inferences from the fact that a particular person uses Tor, and so the service would be more secure for people who use it imperfectly and accidentally reveal their identity to perceptive spies.

Achieving security and privacy is a social and collective enterprise. While an individual can take steps to enhance his own privacy, without the cooperation of others he will be forced to make a choice between participation in society and privacy, of which he may judge privacy to be the lesser of two goods. In this sense, the choice we have to make is analogous to (or more accurately overlapping with) the choice we have to decide who rules. The only way, someone can individually decide not to be ruled by certain politicians is to move to another country and renounce citizenship, and for the majority of Americans life will be easier under President Trump than it will be in a foreign land far from family and friends. The choice we have is a collective choice to adopt benign technologies and social practices or be stuck with what we have. Very politically minded people can publicly announce their allegiance to privacy-conducive technologies, but most people will attach themselves to the dominant network regardless of the effects it has on privacy. For this reason, the only way we can choose benign technology is if it is as or more user-friendly than the current technology while being on par with it functionally.

-- AlexanderGerten - 01 Apr 2016


N.B.: I would like this to replace the non-sensical paper I wrote that heavily cited James C. Scott. Though this shares some themes with that paper, it is entirely a new essay so I created a new topic.

Revision 1r1 - 01 Apr 2016 - 07:18:09 - AlexanderGerten
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