Law in the Internet Society

Who Can Stop the Surveillance State?

-- By ChrisSeelinger - 16 May 2013

In the modern American world of the regulators and the regulated, government and corporate interests, there is usually a semblance of balance. There is a field of law to prevent corporations from amassing too much market power. There is a field of law to protect consumer health and well-being. There is law that compels transparency, fairness, and countless other forms of behavior at varying levels which benefit the public. While campaign donations, lobbyists, and other backroom transactions can earn some companies victory some of the time there has always been sufficient information and action from the public to correct for these deviations in the long run. The private sector also has a wide selection of tools to rebuke a government seeking too much control. Corporations are much more efficient than the general public in terms of marshaling resources against government action. Large companies can employ legions of lobbyists, get the most out of a campaign contribution, represent a concentration of power for officials to curry favor with, afford the best legal teams, and now pay for the most campaign ads. Just as significant is the power of companies to simply walk away. Regulatory arbitrage is a constant reminder for our government of the risk that the more levers it attempts to install in our lives and business, the less it will actually control.

For many contentious issues of power, this balance is enough to reach some equilibrium that satisfactory for the government, the businesses, and the people. However, the danger exists when both business and government see a mutual opportunity for growth at the expense of the people. These opportunities are usually rare. Anything that harms public health will quickly earn public outrage. Anything that drains public wealth cannot be too disruptive to the status quo since economic conditions among voters is one of the major decisive factors in an election. Infringing on public rights on the other hand presents greater opportunity.

Privacy, in particular, represents the greatest loss that an individual faces in the 21st century. The other conditions I’ve described virtually ensure that technological and medical advances will yield more health and wealth for the average American than ever before. Yet our rights in the coming decades remain dangerously uncertain. While the Constitution offers a certain bedrock of guarantees, we have always found a degree of flexibility in its words and privacy rights remain largely up for interpretation. Privacy is also unique from many other rights in that you can be completely stripped of them without your knowledge. This makes privacy extremely vulnerable in an era where technology makes intrusions into private lives less costly, more profitable, and more subtle than ever before. Where the internet has made it easier to review information, make decisions, communicate with others, and express ourselves, it has also made it easier for others to learn more about us in ways we did not intend. As technology continues to evolve, the utility of the net continues to grow with it, and as this happens the average citizen will continue to pour more and more of “themselves” into the net. The incredible power and convenience of the digital world is what draws us into it, yet that power also allows it to take everything that defines us and convey it and convey it in a set of numbers and letters that can be infinitely reorganized for anyone who wants information about you. This information temptation has already seduced many governments and corporations, and as technology evolves the quantity, quality and cost of information will only get better. There is little tension between corporate and government interests here. Elected officials have grown increasingly reliant on campaigns driven by voter data and would only benefit from a world where money can buy the information necessary to win an election. Beyond elections, governments would immeasurable benefits from gaining a more perfect image of its citizens. The benefits corporations may reap are only limited by the human imagination and we have only begun to see how “creative” companies can get in applying their knowledge of us. Unlike the individual, companies and government carry entirely different expectations of privacy and their control of useful information largely occurs in privately controlled channels that one should expect when an organized entity can dictate the infrastructure upon which it communicates.

This brings us to the question posed in the topic. The characteristics of privacy rights make them uniquely vulnerable in the 21st century, both in our inability to understand what we’ve lost and in the incentives for other groups to exploit them. Given our circumstances and much we have already lost, there is only one solution left: To turn the net into the tool for freedom that it was meant to be. This can be done through two different approaches.

The first approach is to organize and unite citizen-users into powerful political action groups that can help leverage the advantages of the net to share information that would help them exert influence on all levels of government to turn the tide of privacy rights and information control on the net. This approach would focus on changing the laws so that “the net as we know it” becomes a tool for seeking truth and freedom, not control and exploitation.

The second approach would be to build up a new net. This would give the public the same sort of protection that keeps corporations and governments aloof from many privacy concerns. This can happen by leveraging one of the same technological advancements that threatens to overwhelm our privacy, compact hardware. By creating a new decentralized net that shifts control of information back to the end-user, we can simply bypass many of the concerns with our existing network arrangements by rendering them unnecessary and obsolete.

Both approaches are not without their challenges, but they represent what may be our last chance to secure a free net for future generations.


Webs Webs

r1 - 16 May 2013 - 22:29:26 - ChrisSeelinger
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM