There have been several interesting items in the news this week that I wanted to share and comment on, so I decided to put aside the article I’d been planning to write and instead share some links and thoughts with you. I’ll start with this New York Times piece from this weekend and hopefully have time to address a few others later this week.
The protests in Egypt have been dominating the news, and I think we’ve all been shocked and fascinated that the government was able to literally shut down the internet in the entire country. This New York Times article does a great job of explaining how critical a tool social media has become in political activism and organization, but also what an easily controllable tool it is. The government can track exactly who said what, how the planning is happening, and, as we saw, literally shut down the entire network. Here’s the article:
These events made me think of the security concerns that Zittrain raised in “The Future of the Internet (And How To Stop It)”, as well as the fears he raised about appliancized devices that leave control on the hands of another. Of course, this was an instance of control over the infrastructure rather than any particular device, but it illustrates the point and brings his fears a little closer to reality.
The discussion in the article about “The Net Delusion” (which, full disclosure, I have not had a chance to read yet) and the neutral nature of web tools also reminded me of Lessig’s themes in “Code 2.0”. That is, the architecture of the internet’s technology, open-systems, and infrastructure has no inherent qualities. It is whatever we make it, and nothing about the internet inherently creates freedom or works for the forces of good. The same tools that can create free discourse and easy communication can create simple tracking and monitoring mechanisms for oppressive governments, advertisers, and academics alike.
Simultaneously, and completely unrelatedly (if that’s a word), I just got a new phone – a T-Mobile MyTouch to replace my busted, barely functional old piece of junk. I logged in and setup all of my accounts, which the phone then synced up for me, so that my phone contacts were connected automatically with my Gmail correspondences, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers and followees. The ease and immediacy made me realize exactly how much of my online identity is now not only connected, but obvious and apparent to any net savvy observer. The anonymity that once existed on the web, and that Lawrence Lessig points out in “Code”, is gone. Instead of being replaced by the digital ID that Lessig optimistically described, it is replaced by a commercial mechanism that is not only out of our control in any substantial way, but is controlled by companies that literally make their money by identifying our demographics and interests and selling them. While market forces and consumer preferences may keep these companies honest with our intimate data, there is a clear conflict happening here.
(Edit 2/1/11: Case in point, see this article from today’s Times about Apple’s tightening of control over their app store: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/technology/01apple.html?_r=1&hpw)
Between the control that Google now has over my Android operating system, and the information that they can access (whether they’d care to or not), and the web trail that I’m constantly leaving, I am a living illustration of the cost and benefit tradeoffs of living a digital life. And most likely, so are you. But again, the fact is that I’m not willing to live off the grid and give up these services, and I doubt that the citizens of Egypt would be willing to give those mechanisms up either, despite their failings. (From what I understand, which isn’t all that much, the more dispersed control that the U.S. has would theoretically to Egypt’s one-provider system that provides for easy government control, but let’s put that aside for now and use this for illustrative purposes only.) I’m certainly not comparing my own concerns about identity theft or government monitoring to the importance and intensity of the situation in Egypt, but as far as the technology is concerned it is, in many ways, a difference in degree more than a difference in kind. Their reality illustrates our possibility.
Again, the fact is that the internet is what we make it. Technology is indifferent. A hammer doesn’t care whether it is used as a tool or a weapon, and it is up to us collectively to decide how to shape the future of the web.
So what does it all mean? To me it means that our political discourse ought to be more aware of issues like net neutrality and the Comcast/NBC merger. We need to think deeply about what information and control we’re handing over when we sync our Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter accounts to our phones and create one easily identifiable online persona that can be linked for our convenience or someone else’s. Personally, I’m not sure what action this translates to yet, but the picture is becoming clearer, and Zittrain’s fears about internet security (which I agreed with Tim Wu would likely not be the driving force in shaping the future of the net) are becoming just a little bit more poignant.
Digital privacy protection laws are necessary, but how do we shape them? How do we even approach such an abstract, complex, and constantly changing undertaking? Once again, I don’t know, but I’ll continue reading and thinking about it and hopefully, over the course of my second semester of law school, I’ll get a little bit closer to the answer.