Law in the Internet Society

Corporate and Government Surveillance

-- By ShawHorton - 15 Oct 2014

NSA Leaks

Government and corporate surveillance permeates society much deeper than most Americans know or are willing to admit. This is true even after Edward Snowden leaked hundreds of thousands of classified government intelligence files to the media just over a year ago. His disclosure confirmed suspicions that global intelligence agencies—in particular, the NSA, Australian Signals Directorate, Government Communications Headquarters (UK), and Communications Security Establishment Canada—cooperate closely with one another. The leaks also revealed the extensive nature of NSA surveillance programs. One of the most widely reported programs was PRISM, which provides the government with court-approved access to Google and Yahoo accounts. Other programs include the NSA call database, metadata collection tools, cellphone mapping and tracking, and surveillance of online gamers. Although there was significant media fanfare immediately succeeding the leaks, the short attention span of the media and the public meant that focus was quickly turned elsewhere. Moreover, the media has a penchant for focusing on relatively minor issues—one need only look at their coverage of Ebola in the United States to verify this claim.

Collusion and Convenience

American ignorance is primarily fueled by two things: corporate collusion with government and convenience.

This is the wrong framing. European ignorance is deeper than American ignorance. Rule of law has never applied to European listeners, and European citizens have neither democratic nor judicial means of control over listening. American citizens lived in the only system that seriously limited domestic listening under rule of law until the beginning of the 21st century, when the system was incautiously destroyed. See Snowden and the Future. So Americans were ignorant for a few years until a Snowden came along to inform them. Europeans remain ignorant, and they have no Snowdens.

Because that's the accurate framing, the next draft needs at least to take it into account. And you might want to consider taking the spring offering in this sequence, because facts are helpful in this area.

Corporate collusion is most clearly manifested in telecommunications corporations and internet service providers (ISPs). For example, Verizon and AT&T allowed the NSA to tap into their data networks to access things like foreign communications. Similarly, an often overlooked form of surveillance is the monitoring and control of information on the internet. ISPs are attempting to create a “closed internet,” which is antithetical to the principle of net neutrality. A “closed internet” means that corporations can restrict access to websites and degrade the quality of services. Although the FCC has created a forum for public comments on the acceptability of internet fast lanes, it appears unwilling to listen to consumers. The control of the internet is often justified by the very same arguments that surround traditional surveillance. For instance, to prevent piracy or illegal activities. These arguments, however, are toothless facades meant to deceive the public.

Although it is impossible to tell, it is likely that not all large corporations are colluding with government efforts to survey—and by extension, control—society. Non-colluders, however, are not necessarily free of blame. On the contrary, many of them are committing massive data collection enterprises themselves. They are facilitating these efforts through technology that the public rely on everyday—for example, search engines, email clients, and smartphones. Therefore, overthrowing this regime proves too inconvenient for the vast majority of Americans. They believe that it is impossible to operate without the likes of Google or Facebook. In reality, there are viable alternatives to supporting these institutions. For example, individuals can use virtual private networks (VPNs), install add-ons for their web browsers (NoScript? , Ghostery, AdBlockPlus? , etc.), install open source operating systems like Linux, or refrain from using services like Facebook altogether. Other users argue that they are merely forming a contract with the companies—that is, in exchange for free use of the service, the corporation gets to collect any data it wants. This reasoning, however, is deeply flawed because it degrades the value of privacy and creates a culture of resignation towards surveillance. Moreover, the contract itself is unconscionable on procedural grounds: the corporation and consumer have enormous differences in bargaining power and it is impossible for the consumer to fully understand the terms of the contract.

Corporate Criticism of Government

Ironically, the private data collectors are criticizing the government. Just the other day, executives from tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook spoke with Senator Ron Wyden. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, opined that government surveillance will ‘break’ the Internet. To combat this, companies are implementing tougher encryption standards. This, however, provides a false sense of security because while it may limit the government’s ability to monitor users, it does not limit the company’s ability to do so.

European Backlash

Although European countries should not be trusted without careful inspection, EU policies are more favorable towards privacy. For example, the EU created a “right to be forgotten” law, which allows European citizens to ask search engines to remove results that infringe on their privacy. Moreover, European countries are attempting to impose “data localization,” which would require corporations like Google to build data centers within their borders. Naturally, tech companies are trying to resist these efforts, arguing that it would have a deleterious financial impact. While this may be true, the primary issue here is the preservation of civil liberty and human individuality, values on which it is impossible to place a price. Therefore, the imposition of stricter local laws on tech firms should be viewed as productive.

See, this is unfortunately all beside the point. It doesn't contain any information about the relationship between listening and the rule of law in Europe, and what it suggests without stating is misleading.

Looking Forward

Corporate and government surveillance may be the most important issues we are facing today. These actions should come as no surprise because a capitalistic regime necessarily results in anti-consumer policies. The erosion of privacy by corporate and government actors creates a culture in which people believe that it is acceptable to spy on others. This means that society must also be wary of peer surveillance. It is not too late, however, to overthrow the current regime. It will require a combination of political pressure, greater awareness, and changed habits.


Webs Webs

r2 - 26 Oct 2014 - 20:13:01 - EbenMoglen
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